This Is the Right Way To Deliver Tough News at Work

May 31, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
Businessman with arm around male coworker at desk
Photograph by Getty Images

The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “What leadership style should every entrepreneur try to adopt? is written by James Green, CEO of Magnetic.

Leadership is a journey, and I am learning new lessons all the time. So here are the top three that I currently strive toward, in order of importance.

Be yourself

If you’re not comfortable with yourself, others will pick up on that and doubt you. Or you’ll say one thing and communicate another with your body. With the advent of social media and being ‘transparent’ (more on that later), authenticity is increasingly important. With successful growth as a leader, you’ll evolve into your own brand: every action – or inaction – will be judged and considered at a much finer level of detail than your average daily exchange. Try not to hide, omit, or spin the truth. Looking someone in the eye and conveying passion with all your being will be noticed. Then, when you inevitably have to change your mind, direction, or make a difficult and unpopular decision, people will understand, believe, and follow you more readily.

Build trust

This one is personal – I hate being told what to do. In fact, the best way to get me to do something is to forbid it and tell me it’s impossible. I firmly believe that one of life’s great joys is setting your own goals and getting yourself there with your team. So I try very hard not to tell people what to do. Even when it’s risky and uncomfortable, you’ve got to let the people who are closest to the problem make their own decisions.

When I was running Walt Disney’s film distribution business in Japan in the mid 1990s, AMC started building new, state-of-the-art facilities despite the dearth of movie theaters in Japan. To encourage this expansion, which was clearly good for our business, I lobbied to play our films in AMC at the same time as everywhere else. But AMC didn’t have very many screens (yet), and the traditional Japanese theater chains told us that if we played our films in AMC “first run” they would block access to their screens.

My conviction was that they couldn’t afford to execute on the threat, but my superiors were more conservative and caved to the Japanese demands. The result was that I realized I didn’t have much authority, and I quit.

The lesson I learned form this was that if you don’t think your people are strong enough to make the decisions, then recruit better people. But don’t overrule your management team. Trust and ye shall be rewarded.

Be transparent

Increasingly, the speed at which information flows and our access to that information has given new meaning for what it really means to be transparent. If you aren’t transparent, the truth will come out quickly and you’ll be judged a liar even if all you did was omit details. There are few things worse in life than being caught in a lie. Thinking back to my first couple of startups (I’m currently on my fifth gig as CEO), I remember painful experiences where I could see things going wrong, but because I thought that I could fix them, I didn’t share the information with my investors.

In one case, our largest client was looking to cancel. It was going to be catastrophic, but I calculated that there was a very good chance we could save the business and started doing everything possible to remedy the situation. After months of hard work, the client cancelled anyway and I informed the board. The first question was, “When did you find out and what are you doing about it?” Of course, I’d known for months, said nothing, and had already done all I could do. The outcome would probably not have changed if I’d informed our investors earlier, but their trust in me as a person and a leader eroded. Today, I communicate any bad news immediately. Good news is always welcome but bad news is best delivered as soon as you get wind of it.