Today, the NFL released penalties and suspensions for the players involved in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, as many suspected they would. Among those suspensions was a one-year suspension for linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who reportedly offered $10,000 of his own money for injuries to quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Farve during two different playoff games in the 2009 season. Vilma learned of his suspension not from the NFL or the New Orleans Saints office, but from ESPN SportsCenter, according to teammate Chase Daniel. While the suspensions are not unexpected, I think the manner that the communication was delivered is something to be considered.
Conflict is a necessary function in life, much less leadership. Bad news happens right along with good news. Sometimes, people have ideas that need tweaking or are just plain wrong. Conflict is a fact. Effective leaders recognize this and address conflict quickly, so things can move forward. Honesty and transparency go along with managing conflict. Conflict isn’t necessarily comfortable, but it is something that can be managed. Leaders must deliver the bad news along with the good.
Leaders dislike surprises. Leaders need to know what is coming, so they can plan and execute strategy effectively. Reacting to surprises sucks out the ability for leaders to perform, which negatively affects overall operational efficiencies. I think it is safe to say that people dislike surprises too. Building an organizational culture that works involves building a culture of trust. Trust comes when leaders deliver the bad news with the good.
How many case studies can be identified as times when leaders failed to communicate bad news? Certainly, Enron hid financial woes from everyone, employees and stockholders. Numerous financial institutions ignored the signs of the housing market crisis. To say people disliked those surprises is an understatement. Those are big examples. People dislike little surprises too. Withholding those surprises erodes trust and eventually destroys employee engagement.
Rumor mills thrive in cultures where leaders allow employees to draw their own conclusions or to guess because the leaders are afraid to deliver bad news. Rumor mills, like ESPN SportsCenter, can spread information (and misinformation) pervasively. Leaders, do not be afraid to deliver all news, both good and bad. Do not avoid giving constructive feedback. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room thinking you are helping your culture. You are not. Be the first to communicate and do so openly and honestly. When you cannot divulge all the facts, say so. Your employees will appreciate the transparency and will trust that you tell them what they need to know.