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Leadership

The Communication Guide For Leaders Who Aren't Sure What's Coming Next

When we don't have enough information, our brains seek "cognitive closure." Much of the time, it doesn't end well.

[Photo: Flickr user Charlie Wales]

Here's an uncomfortable truth: Leaders don’t always know what changes are around the corner. Good or bad, change breeds uncertainty, and uncertainty can breed fear—especially when it will affect employees, whose jobs hang in the balance, and customers, who depend on a product or service. Instead of communicating openly with both groups, leaders tend to go silent at times of crisis and change—and that needs to, well, change.

Uncertainty's No Fun

Humans, as a whole, don’t deal well with not knowing what's coming. Given a choice, we'd rather experience an electric shock right now than not know whether we'll get shocked later. That’s right: Pain is preferable to uncertainty. Our brains seek what scientists have called "cognitive closure," which motivates us to resolve ambiguous issues in our minds.

Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has found that people with a high need for closure will "seize and freeze" on the first piece of information that gives them a feeling of knowing. Others, though, prefer to resolve tension through action. Both reactions are fine if the uncertain folks in your organization happen to either settle or act on something that proves productive. But without a leader to guide them, that isn't very likely.

Let's say your company is changing leadership, reorganizing, or just launching a totally new strategy. You may know what you ultimately want to accomplish but may not have all the details nailed down. In those cases, leaders tend to stay quiet, fearing that incomplete information will make everyone more nervous and expose them to criticism. Meanwhile, the lack of information makes some employees seize on the first piece of gossip that sounds plausible.

Others prepare for a blow—they start revamping their resumes and setting up interviews. As a leader, you're better off being the source of information, no matter how incomplete, rather than letting others fill in the blanks.

When Silence Isn't Golden

Leaders stay silent in times of uncertainty for plenty of seemingly good reasons. Maybe there are legal considerations that are out of their hands, for instance. But they often keep quiet at the wrong times and for the wrong reasons, too. Maybe you assume that that you’ve explained your intentions well enough for employees to connect the dots. Maybe you just trust that they'll trust you, worrying that admitting your own uncertainty may compromise that trust.

In any of those cases, you'd be wrong. Never assume everyone knows what they need to and will be satisfied with what they don't. Focus on what can be said rather than what can’t. People will be more willing to forgive your in-progress ideas if they feel like they’re part of the process. You might be tempted to dive into the "what" and "how" of the changes afoot, but take care to emphasize the "why" as well.

Help your team envision the final outcome by describing the future you hope to create together. But also remind them that even though some aspects of their world may be changing, others are not: The values that you and your organization have always stood for are here to stay.

The Better Way To Bear Bad News

Even after Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks as CEO in 2008, the company’s stock kept sliding. Schultz had to make the difficult decision to close 600 stores, one that he later described as "the most angst-ridden decision we have made in my more than 25 years with Starbucks." But instead of letting people draw their own conclusions, Schultz put it in the context of the company’s still-unrealized vision: "We realize that part of transforming a company is our ability to look forward, while pursuing innovation and reflecting, in many cases, with 20/20 hindsight, on the decisions that we made in the past, both good and bad. However, I strongly believe that our best days are ahead of us."

The why won’t always be easy to bear, and—let's be honest—it's admittedly cold comfort to those who lose their jobs, but under the circumstances, Schultz's message helped pacify his remaining staff because it was delivered from a place of empathy. Change was taking place, but Schultz was trying to create some room for cognitive closure.

Whatever your message, also take some time to think about how you deliver it. Speeches are many leaders' go-to method for communication: They're direct and straightforward and seem to offer maximum control to those who deliver them. But despite certain advantages—their structure can help illustrate the gap between what is and what could be—they have some drawbacks during turbulent times.

Rather than giving a speech, consider telling a story. Narrative can help you deliver information in a more visceral way that can reduce anxiety for the unknown. By hearing about a protagonist having an epiphany or overcoming an obstacle, people can begin to imagine themselves doing the same. The format is elemental. Picking the right story for the right situation can help chart the path forward, imbuing your employees with the emotional resolve to continue, even if they don’t know all the details yet.

When Steve Jobs was trying to motivate a large group of developers to build applications for the latest Macintosh platform, he told a story about a developer he'd offered to fly out to Apple headquarters with his source code in order to work on something "really secret." The developer took him up on the offer and ended up deciding to integrate his own code into the new platform. Jobs used the story to convince other developers to follow suit, even though the project seemed like a gamble at the time.

Ultimately, the very act of communicating can pull people out of uncertainty and realign them to the right goals. So when you're going through big changes and don't quite know yourself what's coming next, resist the instinct to shut up until things are perfect. Be honest. Assess how your silence makes everyone else feel. Then fill in as many of the blanks as you can, acknowledging—with empathy, and possibly through narrative—the ones that remain. After all, you'll need to fill those in together.

Nancy Duarte is the CEO of Duarte, Inc., where Patti Sanchez is chief strategy officer. They are the coauthors of Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols. Follow them on Twitter at @nancyduarte and @pattisan.