The Death Trap of Black Box Leadership


“Nobody ever tells me anything.”
“How are these decisions made?”
“Apparently that is on a need-to-know basis, and I don’t need to know.”

If these are phrases heard in your workplace, then there’s clearly a communication issue. Despite studies that have shown better corporate-wide communication helps morale, while poor communication has the most negative impact – companies seem to resist keeping employees informed.

As the rate of change continues to increase, the need for continuous communication has increased as well. Employees begin to get nervous and feel helpless as their organizations keep them in the dark concerning adjustments to the ever-changing marketplace.

No News is Bad News

Most employees can deal better with bad news than they can deal with the unknown. In a communications vacuum, people will often fill the gaps with worst-case scenarios. You may anticipate a hiring freeze while your people unnecessarily anticipate losing their jobs. This is why leaders must communicate the existing reality, but with hope. You don’t want to be a Pollyanna, but instead should consider the Stockdale Paradox as Jim Collins explains:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
AND at the same time…
You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

So, why do companies buy into a philosophy of Black Box Leadership? Is this some sort of nefarious scheme that company leaders brew in their witch’s cauldron in the midst of a haunted forest? Probably not. It is more likely that leaders have one of three issues with communication:

  1. They don’t want to say too much.
    This is an issue where leadership doesn’t trust their people with information. If people know what is coming, maybe they’ll leave or become less motivated. The irony is that failing to communicate will likely demotivate your employees even more and give them greater reason to consider leaving.
  2. They don’t know what to say.
    Maybe leadership doesn’t have a strategy. This is an even bigger problem because the company lacks direction. If you don’t have a strategic plan, then formulating one should become a critical imperative NOW.
  3. They don’t know how to say it.
    Some companies know where they’re going, they just don’t know how to tell their people. This calls for another type of plan: a communications plan. A person or team should be designated to develop an outline detailing the who, when, what and how of communication. Recognize that different stakeholders may require different modes of communication (conference, town hall meeting, newsletter, email).

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Sandy Pentland explained the importance of communication to team success:

In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.

Did you catch that last item on the list of less significant “other” factors?

“The substance of discussions.”

This means how you communicate is even more important than what you communicate. So, the emphasis should be on having a communication plan (which will force you to develop the content of what you communicate).

So the bottom line is this: Trust your people, have a Strategy and develop a Plan to communicate it. A need-to-know basis should mean that ALL EMPLOYEES need to know the big picture and how it affects them.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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