Last week, I hosted a Q&A session in which participants could ask any question they wanted about change and together we would come up with options for solutions.
One of the attendees, a manager for a large retail chain, is in the loop when it comes to changes coming down the pike, but has not been given the go ahead to provide the details. Employees know that changes are coming and are asking questions. The manager asked, “How should I respond to questions when I can’t provide the answer?”
She knew that saying, “I don’t know” would be a lie, and would hurt her integrity when it was found out that she knew all along what was happening. Telling the whole truth about the changes before getting the go-ahead from leadership would also be detrimental both to her integrity and her career, and wasn’t really considered an option.
It’s a tricky situation, having to simultaneously tell the truth and keep secrets. So what do you say when you know the answer but are not at liberty to share it to the person who is asking?
The consensus among attendees was that your response should contain three main ingredients:
- The truth. Even if the only thing you can say is some variation of, “I know the answer to your question, but I’m not at liberty to tell you yet,” always tell the truth. Explain the real reason you can’t tell – for example, that the timing is important so the transition happens at the same time, or that the details are still being finalized.
- Compassion. When there are gaps in people’s understanding of what is going on, they are going to imagine the answers themselves, and they will probably fill it with the worst case scenario. To the extent you can, quell their anxiety by telling what you know is not going to happen. Show that you understand their need for certainty, and appreciate the fact that they care enough to ask the question.
- Support. Let them know that whatever happens, you will help them through it.
As change agents, we often find ourselves knowing or even planning something that can’t be shared until the right time. The ability to be honest while withholding confidential information is an important skill to have.