Mastering disclosure of sensitive information is one of the most important skills a successful leader can have. Recently, I coached an executive team through a very difficult communication challenge. An employee was caught embezzling from the employer. His behavior had legal ramifications and compromised several of the organization's accreditations. The employee was immediately terminated, but his absence was obvious and the gossip mill quickly began churning. The organization got through the situation with minimal collateral damage, and even used it to increase cohesiveness and trust, by applying the following five principles, which are outlined in my book Conflict Without Casualties: A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability (Berrett-Koehler, 2017).
1. Distinguish the "what" from the "how."
What you choose to disclose is very different from how you do it. Before sharing information, it is absolutely appropriate to determine whether any key principles are at stake—confidentiality, rights to privacy and any legal boundaries that must be respected. After that, the big question becomes "How do I disclose information in the most effective and transparent way?" It may mean a companywide memo or an in-person meeting. Simultaneous disclosure to all affected parties is best, and it is preferable if you can be present to answer questions and address concerns immediately.
2. Never start with the information.
This is one of the most important principles. Contrary to what you might think, people don't want to know the information first. They first want to know your motives, particularly the emotional ones. Are you disclosing the information because you want to be honest? Because you want to show transparency? Because you care about how your team is impacted? Remember, people don't care what you know until they know that you care.
3. Embrace vulnerability to build trust.
Disclosing information invites vulnerability. But disclosing your emotions and emotional motives is a hundred times scarier. Are you afraid, anxious, worried, excited, remorseful? It's not only OK but necessary for you to be honest about how you are feeling because it builds trust. Unless you show your emotional cards, how can you expect your constituency to know you care? You don't have to be bulletproof. You have to be human.
4. Follow the "what" with "now what?"
Disclosing sensitive information leaves people asking three questions: "How is this going to affect us?" "What do we do next?" and "What's at stake?" Be prepared to speak to each one of these questions immediately following disclosure. Whether you are informing an employee of a promotion or letting the organization know you've been sued, these questions matter. You don't have to know all the answers, but as a leader you need to have something to say. In fact, great leaders answer these three questions every day, regardless of the situation.
5. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
I'll say it again: You don't have to have all the answers, and you don't have to go it alone. It's OK to ask for help. The more you engage people in answering the three questions listed above, the more ownership they will have.
Nate Regier is the co-founding owner and chief executive officer of Next Element, a global advisory company based in Newton, Kan., that specializes in building cultures of compassionate accountability, and a former practicing psychologist.
Read more from Regier about why conflict can be healthy at work in the May 2017 issue of HRMagazine.