What to Say and When to Say It as the Leader of a Small Business

“Because even the smallest of words can be the ones to hurt you, or save you.”
― Natsuki Takaya

As a business owner or the leader of a small business, it’s important to know what to say and when to say it. What you share and how you share key pieces of information with employees will greatly impact their level of trust in you, their dedication to the business, how they feel about their job, and their productivity. Just one misunderstood statement, leaked piece of confidential information, premature celebration, or a joke gone wrong can affect an individual or entire team for a day, a week, or longer. Sharing with wisdom is an important duty of a founder, one that most of us could learn to do better.

For example, let’s say you have a new business investor lined up. After a couple of signatures, you’ll be able to double your staff and increase the pay of several currently underpaid employees. If you tell them this news now, they will be excited, start making plans for the increase in salary, and feel a sense of relief that their work may become easier with more help from new hires.

Bad news—the deal fell through. The same employees who were excited are now upset and concerned. They may even be demotivated in their work and lose faith in your business. Sharing the right information at the right time is wise.

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Sharing everything isn’t a good way to lead a team of employees, but neither is holding in information that’s important for your staff to know and consider—even if it’s not something you’re jumping up and down to share with them. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” doesn’t work in business. In fact, only sharing what’s nice and trying to focus only on the positive side of every situation is a dangerous strategy. Sharing honest and realistic information is much more helpful.

Let’s go back to the scenario of the failed investment. Although sharing too soon was a first misstep, withholding the bad news that the investment failed would be a second misstep. You now have a responsibility to share the news of the nixed deal, explain why it went south, and cast a vision for what to expect next. In truth, you’re probably more concerned and frustrated than any of your employees. But as the leader, they are looking to you for guidance and comfort when times get rough.

Not all important conversations will be company or team-wide. Most of your daily interactions are small scale with a single individual, and what is said one-on-one should stay between you and that individual.

For example, take the dwindling performance of an employee. It’s your responsibility to communicate expectations and outline a plan for improvement. The employee should get the opportunity to correct course and rise above the current hurdles to once again become an asset to your company. These are difficult conversations, but this is not the time to keep your mouth shut hoping the employee will intuitively change. Nor is it the time to wait until it gets so bad that it warrants the employee be fired. By addressing the situation now, you may be able to put a positive spark under the employee or learn of hidden factors impacting performance. Such conversations are personal and should not be shared with the entire company.

Whatever the scenario, knowing what information to share at what time with what people isn’t easy. That’s why the burden rests on you, the leader! Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering whether to share a piece of news:

  • What are the positive and negative consequences of sharing the news?

Thinking of the best- and worst-case scenarios is a simple way of determining risk and the least you should do when faced with the decision.

  • What positive and negative consequences could come—for you, your team, or the whole company—if you withhold this news or information?

Just as you need to consider the possible outcomes of sharing information, business leaders also should weigh the risk of withholding news and determine what damage or positive benefits it could produce.

  • Who will this impact and to what degree?

Example: You just fired the manager of your sales team. This will impact your sales staff significantly and other managers within the company to a lesser degree. The sales staff should find out about this move from you or another executive they know and trust, and they should be allowed to ask questions as they try to adjust to this shift in their work life.

Employees in an unrelated department will be impacted little, if at all, by this move, so their interest in this information is minimal, so telling them face-to-face is probably not necessary. Consider the impact this news will have on those you’re sharing with before deciding to share.

  • Is this information dependent on something that’s uncontrollable or could be impacted by other external factors?

Sharing information that has the possibility of resulting in a completely different outcome, as in the failed investment example, is never a good idea. Just as a local newspaper would look bad for publishing the wrong sports scores because they didn’t wait until the games were finished, jumping the gun in announcing news causes panic and can also result in a loss of trust.

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Whatever challenges you face in communicating with your employees, keep their needs and feelings top of mind. If they feel that their job or the company is in jeopardy, or feel disrespected or underappreciated, you will fail to get the most out of your staff and possibly lose valuable employees. By finding the balance between what to share and what to keep private, your business can avoid unnecessary drama and discontent among your staff.

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