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5 reasons to re-examine how leaders communicate

6 min read


“The average person tells four lies a day, or 1,460 a year; a total of 87,600 by the age of 60. And the most common lie is ‘I’m fine.’” This quote appeared in a friend’s recent blog post and got me thinking.* Does the average manager tell four lies a day?

Much of corporate America has an unspoken doctrine of “business masks.” Act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Downplay (or hide) your failures. Don’t ever show weakness. Observe corporate politics carefully to avoid land mines. Play by the rules. Say, ‘I’m fine’ even if you aren’t. Oh, and while you are at it? Be authentic. Employees and customers cherish authenticity.

If “I’m fine” is a lie, what else is? What about purposeful non-disclosure of business information — holding back details that might influence a listener’s decisions?

Where’s the line between spinning a yarn and acceptable communication spin?

In many organizations, polished “business masks” become essential for rising to the most senior roles, and many C-suite executives go on to create “organizational masks.” Gary Mitchiner, a management consultant, describes the phenomenon this way: “I dislike when leadership tells employees pieces and parts of what’s going on, being selective with content to share, instead of conveying the full story of what’s really happening. Executives will say, ‘We can’t tell them what’s really going on. They can’t handle it. They don’t have the maturity to deal with it. They will quit. They won’t work as hard. We will tell them information on a need-to-know basis.’ They start editing and spinning, carefully packaging the parts they feel employees need to know.”

Is the resulting partial truth a lie? I’ll answer with a question: What is the difference between this corporate editing and saying “I’m fine” when you really aren’t?

Here’s the problem with this masking approach, according to Mitchiner: “Employees have a sensitive BS detector and can smell when they aren’t hearing the whole story. They don’t voice this concern; they just walk out, thinking, ‘Management is not leveling with us.’ When employees don’t have the whole story, they themselves fill in the missing pieces. The resulting rumors can be far more damaging than if management had simply told the unvarnished truth in the first place.”

Jim Franklin, an executive I interviewed in my last post, was fired over this issue of organizational masking earlier in his career. He had refused to play the game. Jim explained, “I had a lot of conflict with the CEO. He operated on a ‘need-to-know basis’ and I like to be transparent and share everything. For example, I like to tell employees our cash balance and burn rate. The CEO did not permit that. I also like to give the board real information in real time. The CEO preferred to curate information that went to the board. He also wanted to pair bad news with good news. And if there wasn’t any good news? Well, let’s just say he expected us to get creative. I certainly could have reduced conflict by following orders. That would have extended my tenure, but ‘playing ball’ is not my thing.”

Weighing the cost

Franklin likes to ask people what it has cost them to be honest. Mitchiner agrees. “What would happen,” he asks, “if you said, ‘Hey everyone, we have some news to share. We are about to lose a piece of business that’s worth 30% of our revenue and will place 50 jobs at risk. Here’s what we are going to do about this, because we want to retain your jobs.'”

How does this forthright approach compare to: “Yes, it looks like we’re going to lose this contract. It’s a large part of our business, but we think we are going to be OK anyway. We are not sure how this will impact job retention. We’ll get back to you.” Hint: You just told employees to get their resumes together.

Here’s another example. Management makes a mistake. The authentic manager says, “XYZ happened. I had a blind spot and missed this as the leader. I apologize for the consequences my mistake has created. Here’s what we are going to do to recover.”

In contrast, the “masked” manager does not acknowledge the error to employees or apologize. The manager’s view: “Workers won’t respect me if I say this.” The employees’ takeaway: “This guy (or gal) isn’t accepting any responsibility for this mistake.”

If you are a leader, here are five reasons to be transparent:

  1. Someone might learn an important lesson from your mistakes, so they can avoid similar missteps.
  2. If employees understand all the issues, they can develop more accurate, promising solutions.
  3. “Trust is a reflexive property,” says Franklin. When you trust others enough to share what’s on your mind, they will feel more comfortable talking candidly with you. Do you want employees withholding their ideas, insights and opinions, or sharing them openly?
  4. “Admitting your mistakes,” continues Franklin, “can make people feel like it is OK to take chances, be oneself, fail, and know things still can turn out OK. It can reduce fear and create a climate of safety.”
  5. You are not fooling anyone with your curated messages. In this connected world, your employees have access to ever-increasing amounts of information. If you withhold important details, they will suspect. They might even know. And you will only damage your credibility as a leader.

“This is all about trust,” concludes Mitchiner. “When leadership says something, they can enhance trust or destroy it. Every e-mail. Every town hall meeting. If you are conscious of your impact on trust, you will take more care.”

Leaders: Have you unmasked? What benefits have you seen from increased transparency?

Many thanks to Gary Mitchiner and Jim Franklin for your insights on this topic.

*Origin of this quote: an “unscientific” Daily Mail survey (United Kingdom). Various scientific studies of this topic have yielded averages ranging from one lie a day to “three lies per 10 minutes of conversation.” Sobering

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, unabashedly challenges the status quo. Read her posts at Lead Change Group and check out the free “straight talk” manager assessment at