Why I Don’t Shield My Team From Bad News

When startup heads keep difficult information to themselves, they show they don’t trust their teams.

Why I Don’t Shield My Team From Bad News
[Photo: Shutterstock]

Many CEOs and startup heads think they need to shield their teams from bad news, the risks of certain ventures, and other negative aspects that are inevitable on any company’s journey. I believe this concept could actually be quite dangerous.


One of our core values at Buffer is to default to transparency. This means absolutely everything in the company is shared knowledge.

That idea was scary when we first implemented it, not least because it goes very much against the grain of the business world. I found myself hesitating, not because I could genuinely think of reasons not to share, but simply because no one else shares some of the things we’ve shared. Here are a few reasons I don’t spare my team any of the bad news our company confronts.

1. Shielding Your Team Leads To Distrust

One of the worst things about withholding information of any kind is the message it unknowingly sends to the team. If you hold back information, you’re silently telling your employers that you don’t trust them. Frédéric Laloux put it well in Reinventing Organizations:

In most workplaces, valuable information goes to important people first and then trickles down to the less important. Sensitive information is best kept within the confined circle of top management. The underlying assumption is that employees cannot be trusted; their reactions could be unpredictable and unproductive, and they might seek to extract advantages if they receive too much information.

Laloux’s reason why starting a trend of secrecy–implicitly or explicitly–is so dangerous is that it’s self-reinforcing: “Because the practice is based on distrust, it in turn breeds distrust.”


That is, the policies you set up based on these assumptions might trigger people to try to cheat the system because they start to despise it. Once you find your team members doing this, the natural thing is to introduce yet more controls and restrictions.

2. Withholding Information Strains Leaders

Beyond affecting the culture and spirit of your team, withholding information puts an unnecessary strain on you as a founder or CEO. A startup’s journey is a series of ups and downs, and the lows can really be difficult. There are many sad examples of things becoming too much for a founder, and more often than not, they’ve kept all that stress to themselves.

The traditional structure of a company in a hierarchy naturally leads to a pyramid, with a single person at the top. The law of pressure in physics can illustrate the outcome here:

pressure = force/area

The smaller the area, the higher the pressure. In this example, the pressure from under an elephant’s foot is far less than that from under a stiletto heel:

If bad news comes up and you take the whole burden on yourself, the pressure is much greater than if that news is shared among many people.


3. Check Your Ego

Whenever I’ve felt I should hold something back from people on my team, I believe it’s my ego that’s often been at play. I’m essentially saying that I can handle the situation better on my own or take more than others can–as though I’m more responsible than everyone else.

It’s like I’m treating my team like children, which is ironic, because many people on the team have children and I don’t yet! I’m convinced that if we can let go of our egos as leaders and share information and responsibility, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Holding onto information often comes from the fear of giving up control, at the expense of trust and moving faster, thanks to shared decision making. One of the reasons I try to practice daily meditation is to more easily make decisions without letting my own ego get in the way.

Do you share bad news? Do you guard your team from some of the tough decisions and risks of your company? Do you think that in some cases we should? I’d love to hear any thoughts at all on this topic.

This article originally appeared on Buffer and is reprinted with permission.