How Much Leadership Transparency is Advised During Organizational Change?

How Much Leadership Transparency is Advised During Organizational Change?

Kelly Ripa recently returned to her TV show after what many would describe as an awkward absence at the very least.  According to media reports, after her sidekick Michael Strahan abruptly announced his pending departure from the show to take a full time gig with GMA, she conducted a “sick out” of sorts brought about by her sense of indignation about her lack of advance notice (from either Strahan or the network) about the planned change.  In her speech upon returning, she said that the incident “started a much greater conversation about communication, consideration, and most importantly, respect in the workplace.” As a corporate trainer and team building consultant, I think that she raises a really important issue that deserves broader discussion in the workplace – Is it disrespectful to keep a secret from colleagues when asked to by senior leadership?  Is it indeed disrespectful when leaders don’t disclose pertinent information to staff or is it to be expected that keeping secrets is just part of being a leader? Should employees expect honesty from senior leaders or is transparency not really realistic?  I think these are great questions, and it’s one that leaders should seriously ponder as they navigate and define their own personal leadership value system and broader organizational culture they intend to cultivate and encourage.

In particular, I often work with teams going through change and leaders frequently ask me… “When I know things that I just can’t share with the full team, I get really frazzled and don’t know how to handle it.  What should I do?” My response to virtually all managers and leaders reflects what most of us learned in kindergarten – honesty is the best policy.  In many ways I’ve found is honesty is often the best policy not just because it’s the nice thing to do but moreso because it works!  More specifically, my perspective is that when leaders are asked a hard question by staff, I feel there are only 3 acceptable responses:

  1. Answer the question honestly
  2. Tell them that you don’t know but you’ll find out
  3. Tell them that you can’t tell them

My sense is that no one wants to give the #3 response. As a result, leaders often provide responses that are either misleading or downright lies or they pretend that they don’t know – all very dangerous strategies.  In my experience, just like dogs can sense fear, staff know when you’re not being honest. In the communication void left with leaders not sharing information (or providing a less than satisfactory response), I’ve often found that staff create their own information – the rumor mill starts flowing and their version is often much worse than the reality. Ultimately, once it’s revealed that leadership was less than honest, trust is now broken.  Good luck developing a strong, healthy organization with low levels of trust!

The reality is that virtually no one in the workplace expects 100% transparency on all issues.  Nearly everyone realizes that there will be times when leaders must hold some information close to the vest or they can’t divulge details for one reason or another.  Therefore, leaders are typically MUCH better off by just being honest and sharing what they can but also being honest enough to draw boundaries indicating where they’re not at liberty to share additional details. Arguably, as the Live with Kelly and Michael saga illustrates, oftentimes changes occur within an organization and some staff should be informed (either because the change impacts them more significantly, their input is needed to make a better decision, etc.) while it may be risky or costly to divulge details to others.  I doubt seriously that the camera operators or makeup artists would expect the same level of information sharing about pending talent changes as Kelly Ripa, the star of the program.  Arguably, true leadership is about determining who needs to know what when and being honest with everyone throughout the process.


In this video Dana shares 3 key leadership mistakes during organizational change.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at  Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.