Are the Mics on? What to Communicate

On March 26, 2012, US President Barack Obama was in South Korea and met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. As they were preparing to give remarks to reporters President Obama leaned over to President Medvedev and stated that he would “have more flexibility” in missile defense negotiations after his election.

This blunder is reminiscent of an off-the-cuff declaration by President Ronald Reagan on August 11, 1984 prior to his weekly radio address. Reagan announced, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

These comments bring to mind the issue of what to communicate to your team. As a leader you may frequently undertake exercises or explorations with radical negative team impacts. Since these exercises often have a very small chance of being executed and a release of an incomplete plan can install fear into team members, it is important that they stay within a small group of colleagues. While this may smack of clandestine and unsavory business dealings, it is the smart thing to do.

If you are negotiating with an external party this complicates matters further. You do not want to tip your hand to the other party, inadvertently providing them with an advantage. Negotiations can sometimes involve multiple individuals with specific roles, including “good cop/bad cop” duties, the technocrats, the diplomats, and so on. To share such details with your team is both unnecessary and a waste of time and energy.

When considering how much information to share broadly with your team, a litmus test I use is to consider:

  • Likelihood that the scenario will play out
  • Ramifications on the psyche of individual performers
  • Effect of a transmission of partial information or information taken out of context to other groups
  • The value of your team having the information vs. not having the information.

Whatever information you do share with your team, assume that it will be spread widely. I often chuckle at the comment, “Don’t tell anyone, but…” If everyone follows this common policy then everyone ends up knowing the information.

On a related note, I routinely have leaders confide to me that team members are talking behind their backs. Expect that. Accept the fact that everyone is talking about everyone and forget it. Move on to more important issues. People share thoughts and experiences to expand their knowledge and to attempt to bring certainty to uncertain situations. This is why rumors start.

As humans, we abhor uncertainty. Rumors are an effort to find certainty in uncertain circumstances. It is best to deal with rumors using frequent, clear, honest communication. In these communications it is acceptable and reasonable to say that you cannot divulge all information. A good example is potential layoffs. If rumors begin you may need to state that layoffs are being explored but that they are a last resort. You should also state what actions are being taken in order to avoid such an action.

Here’s a parting thought on what to communicate… Think about what you would tell an eight year old child of yours about a possible negative event. On one hand you want to prepare the child, on the other you don’t want to instill him or her with anxiety or fear. So remain thoughtful and diligent about what and how you communicate.


  • Communicate only what is valuable and necessary for your team
  • Assess the ramifications of what you are planning to share
  • It’s acceptable to state that you can’t share everything at the moment but that you will provide updates as more information becomes certain

Keywords: leadership, communication, rumor, negotiation


  • Allport, F. H. (1924). Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • DiFonzo, N., & Bordia, P. (2006). Rumor psychology: Social and organizational approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Hersey, P., Blanchard, K. H., & Johnson, D. E. (1993). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (6th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Leidner, D. E. (1998). Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(4). Retrieved from
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