It’s a story most have already heard. NFL star turned patriotic soldier. When Pat Tillman, who exchanged his football helmet for a tan Army Ranger beret following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2004, Pentagon leadership reported his death as the result of hostile fire. A year later, it was revealed that Pat had been killed by friendly fire, a fact known almost immediately by battlefield leaders.
Whenever leaders allow their fears of negative reactions to produce “spun” messages, in the end, the thin ice under their feet will crack and the will find themselves in the frigid waters of distrustful followers. What begins as an uncomfortable communications issue instantly spirals into issues of accountability and authenticity, or lack thereof.
We’ve all been there, so let’s not presume to not understand the driving influences that lead to the “spin cycle.” Psychologically, it’s sometimes tough to face the challenge of keeping followers motivated and positive when the news you need to deliver might undermine those very facets of engagement. But the dangers to leaders who choose this easy path are usually far worse than the news itself.
At the core, it’s a matter of trusting your employees, trusting them to be resilient, agile, and emotionally stable in the face of “less than perfect” revelations. The fact is, the information is rarely as revelatory as leaders sometimes believe. Organizational rumor mills are powerful mechanisms for dispersing corporate news far in advance of official leadership proclamations. And even if the news hasn’t unofficially leaked already, is it better to assume your employees can’t handle the truth or to believe they are free-thinking individuals capable of adapting and handling temporary discomfort.
Think about it….if we trust in the abilities of employees (including their agility and ability to handle bad news), what is the worst thing that happens? That’s right, as leaders we could be wrong and their reactions could be wildly horrid. Okay, so what now? Well, isn’t it simply a matter of then address the reactions? We’re no worse off than if we had insisted on treating them like infants to begin with…with the need to be coddle, nursed, and shielded from all potential harm.
In fact, by assuming bad news needs to be spun in a positive light, we ignore Pareto’s principle. We ignore the strengths of our top 80% of employees, focusing instead on appeasing the emotional immaturity of our remaining 20%. And in doing so, we have offended the very capabilities of the 80% who could have handled the negative (but honest) message. The result? We now have 100% of our organization in a tizzy…20% due directly to the message contents, and the rest due to the dishonest and disingenuous message tone.
Had the Pentagon in 2004 honestly admitted to the Tillman family the accurate details around his death, would it have lessened the tragedy or its ultimate impact of the situation? Absolutely not! The fact would have remained that an individual lost his life in the service of his country and a family lost a son and a brother. But by attempting to avoid a public relations firestorm, the Pentagon undermined it’s own credibility more effectively than if the actual facts had been revealed. They took at bad situation and made it infinitely worse. Such is the case when leaders mistake “spin” for positivity. The result is inevitably negative for all.