As a Leader: To Make a Statement or Not?

During times of upheaval, violence, or uncertainty, it is not uncommon for people to turn to their leaders to ask for their official position or for consumers to dissect the messages that the brands they love (and sometimes love to hate) put out through social media.

If we know this is true – and we’re all aware of the importance of authenticity and transparency in leadership, why do many leaders still hesitate to say something when they know their voices matter?

In my blog post Not just another vague opinion piece on “transparency”…, we talked about the Four Fears that are roadblocks to transparent, authentic work environments.

  1. Fear of a Loss of Control
  2. Fear of a Loss of Credibility
  3. Fear of Vulnerability
  4. Fear of Being Misunderstood

Additionally, some leaders might see jumping into the current social discourse as a distraction.  Brian Armstrong, Coinbase’s CEO, instituted a policy in 2020 that banned discussions on political and social matters in the workplace, arguing that the issues were noise that pulled people’s focus from the core business objectives. Coinbase offered severance packages to anyone that no longer wanted to work at the company as a result of the cultural shift.

Is silence really the best policy?

Leaders often confront complex dilemmas both inside and outside their organizations. When it comes to internal issues, it’s pretty obvious to most that making a statement or taking a stance in some way is extremely beneficial to the community – we owe it to them to keep them informed on the state of the business and our industry. But when it comes to complex external issues, staying silent on contentious or politically charged issues might initially seem safer. But is that really the best approach?

Research by Ike Silver and Alex Shaw suggests otherwise. Their study of 4,000 workers across various industries found that participants tended to be “more suspicious and less trusting of coworkers, managers, and public figures who decline to take sides than of those who openly express an opinion — even if it’s an opinion with which they disagree.” In times of social upheaval and uncertainty, silence can be especially damaging to the culture and morale of a team, undermining a leader’s moral authority and the terms of the previously understood psychological contract between the worker and organization.

Beyond Statements to Signals

Generally speaking, our teammates aren’t asking for a crafted “statement” from us as leaders; they’re seeking assurance that we stand for something, that our values align with theirs, and that we’ll be there for them personally when it counts. When our teams ask us to say something, what they really want to know is…

  • Do you share my values?
  • Can I trust you to lead me in the way I hope to be led?
  • Are you worthy of being followed?

And perhaps most importantly…

  • If/when this affects me or my community, will you stand up for my humanity?

During tragic and tumultuous times, transparent, authentic leadership goes beyond just a statement—it’s about the actions, the unsaid, and even the vulnerabilities leaders are willing to reveal. Being transparent and authentic involves embracing self-reflection and seeking feedback, fighting against the Fear of Vulnerability that might be giving us pause and holding us back.

So What Do We Do? A Framework

In her 2023 book, Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World”, Sally Susman shares five questions…

  1. Does the issue relate to our purpose?
  2. How does the issue relate to our stakeholders (starting with our teammates)?
  3. How does it relate to our values?
  4. What are our options should we choose to engage?
  5. What is the price of our silence?

And here are two more I’d add:

  1. Would our people be talking and thinking about this anyway?
  2. Considering Dov Seidman’s “Thanksgiving Dinner Test”, would your employees feel proud telling their families how your organization responded to the issue?

Incorporating these additional questions challenges us as leaders to consider not just the tactical dimensions of our statements, but also the emotional and social ramifications of their actions—or lack thereof. By asking these questions, we can mitigate some of the fears surrounding these situations and engage more authentically with our teams.

From Statement to Signal

Rather than focusing solely on what you say, consider the overall message you’re sending. Your actions, deliberate or unconscious, say just as much, if not more, than your words. The signals you send through these actions can build or break trust.

Micro-Case Studies

Aileen Eskildsen, Ellin & Tucker:

In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, CEO Aileen Eskildsen went beyond issuing a statement. She realized that she didn’t have all the historical facts and details, but saw the importance of being able to put herself in others’ shoes, focusing on developing a personal understanding as opposed to making a statement to check the box. By hosting informative forums, she signaled compassion, curiosity, and a community-driven approach to action by creating forums for discussion and inviting outside experts to talk about the history of Israel and Palestine and what is playing out today.

Elaine Mason, Cisco:

Elaine Mason (SVP, Purpose Strategy and Planning)  shared how current events impacted her emotionally as a member of the Jewish community, thereby signaling emotional investment and acknowledgement, as well as her compassion for others that might be feeling the same.

Silence is a statement in itself – one that can be costly. Rather than asking, “What should we say?” let’s consider, “What will we signal to our people?” The latter provides a more holistic and compassionate view, encapsulating not just our words but our actions, ensuring we are  communicating our trustworthiness and authenticity to our community.

It’s not just about crafting statements or finding the right words; it’s about the signals you send.

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