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As a leader, your success rests on your ability to communicate effectively.

It seems simple – until you have to deliver bad news.

Whether it’s layoffs, restructuring, or taking a different direction in business strategy, communicating unpopular decisions can be brutal.

But it’s never just about WHAT you say. It’s also about how and when you say it.

It’s a hard lesson that I learned at the start of the COVID pandemic – and one I wished I had learned much sooner!

I learned that the best leaders communicate in a way that alleviates anxiety, inspires teams to push forward, and makes them feel more comfortable with change. Here’s how they make it happen:

Communicate Your Options Ahead of Time

Put yourself in the shoes of someone on your team.

It can be stressful to hear unfortunate news about the company or learn that big changes are coming to your job.

But it’s especially difficult if it comes when you’re totally unprepared.

As a leader, one of the best things you can do to soften the blow is give people some advance notice. If you know you might have to make a tough decision in the coming days, weeks, or months, be open with your team. Telegraph today what might happen tomorrow.

Communicating With Transparency and Honesty

If the organization is hurting financially or falling short of goals, it can be tempting to put on a happy face. But people are smart and tend to know if you’re trying to sugarcoat the situation.

Instead, it’s more productive to be transparent about your situation and what options you’re considering to move toward a more positive outcome. It’s critical to be honest so that teams know where you stand and what the future might hold. Explain WHY you’re considering each option.

When COVID first hit, I explained to my teams the decisions we were making to stay financially healthy. I discussed our priority to avoid layoffs at all costs and how that might include temporary pay cuts to weather the storm.

I can’t tell you how many team members reached out to let me know they appreciated the transparency. It also gave them peace of mind that I wasn’t withholding any information. They knew they wouldn’t be surprised with any large, unexpected changes.

In a time of great uncertainty, they at least knew they had as much information as I did about what was going to happen next. There were no rumors or speculation around what the executive team might decide to do next.

This was key because it allowed them to focus on doing their jobs and serving our clients.

If you do have to make that tough decision later, at least your teams were prepared and were treated respectfully through the process.

Owning Your Decision

Another key part of communicating is OWNING your decisions. Excuses are BS. Even when circumstances out of your control, you’re still the leader in charge.

When COVID hit, a lot of businesses had to make layoffs. That’s understandable. But no one wants to work for a leader that makes unpopular decisions and lays the blame elsewhere.

No weaseling. No excuses. It’s always your decision. You can explain the factors behind your decision, but don’t try to lay the blame elsewhere. Own your decisions, both good and bad.

You can wallow in what happened, or you can focus on moving forward and building back stronger or different.

Communication Unlocks Top Performance

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember just how much your teams benefit from transparent communication.

Once the initial panic from COVID passed, I realized that I should have been communicating much more even under normal circumstances. With more frequent, honest communication, we saw engagement and performance rise substantially across our teams.

It can be hard to be transparent. It’s not always easy to make the time for regular communication to our teams. But trust me – it’s worth it!

If you’re interested in learning more about how to lead teams through change, check out my Leadership in Times of Crisis webinar series. It’s packed full of hard-won lessons from my own experience in 20 years of leading a company on how you can get the most from your people when it feels like the sky is falling!