Last Updated Jul 12, 2011 8:37 AM EDT
Managing is straightforward; leadership is not. You really earn your management stripes when the right answer is, at times, also the hardest answer.
Why are situations like the following so challenging? Managers don't just manage processes. Managers manage people: People with hopes, fears, and emotions, no matter how rational or justified.
The following are some of the most difficult management challenges I've faced. Some I handled reasonably well; others I screwed up the first time (and sometimes the second and third times.) See how my list -- and my advice -- lines up with yours.
Challenge #1: You know things you can't share with employees.
Typical Situation: Sales are down, financial results are poor, layoff rumors have been swirling for weeks. The employees you manage know you've had several meetings to discuss options, one as recently as yesterday. During that meeting you decided to lay off 10 employees the following week.
An employee comes in your office and says, "Hey, I know you guys have been talking about layoffs. I'm really worried; I can't afford to lose my job. Do you know what's going to happen?"
The Challenge: You shouldn't say. You can't say. But you've built a solid rapport with your employees, always answering questions and giving honest feedback. How can you respond without breaking confidentiality yet also without breaking the sense of trust you've built with your team?
The Solution: Hard as it is to do, you can't say what you know. But you also can't just say, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you." That non-answer will go out on the floor as, "I asked him, and he said he couldn't tell me. If there weren't going to be layoffs, he would have just said so. So I know people are going to get laid off."
Clearly that doesn't work; you have to go a little deeper. Here's what you could say:
"You know we've been struggling as a company. And we have had a lot of meetings where we talked about what to do. We've looked at all kinds of options. I wish I could, but I really can't tell you anything at this point. I've been asked not to, and that's a good enough reason, but more importantly it wouldn't be fair to anyone else if I told you things I didn't share with everyone.
"Here's what I can tell you: Whenever decisions are made and I have permission to share those decisions, I will tell you and everyone else on the team immediately. You will be the first to know. I promise. For now, just know that we're doing everything we can to make a bad situation as good as possible."
Will the employee go away happy? No. He might even get angry or feel betrayed, especially if you have shared things in the past you weren't allowed to share. (Admit it -- we all spill a few secrets from time to time, especially with great employees we trust.) But this is one situation you can't leak. Don't assume the employee will be able to keep the news to himself. After all, you didn't.
Bonus Tip: Any situation where you are asked questions you shouldn't answer is made more difficult when your lips were loose in the past. It's always tempting to share sensitive information with certain employees. Not only is it at times nice to have someone to talk to, sharing also builds a stronger relationship and bond... and makes managing a little less lonely. But that "openness" also makes any "I really can't tell you" situation that much more difficult -- and leaves the employee feeling suddenly shut out. The best practice? Keep all sensitive matters to yourself, and never share information you aren't allowed to share. Not only is that a good personal policy to follow, it makes this challenge much easier to deal with.