Caution: Your Employees Will Fill in the Blanks

October 19, 2019
Paul LaRue

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what’s said, it’s what is unsaid that speaks the loudest”?

Some leaders operate under the “need to know” philosophy when it comes to communicating important news to their employees. Others might give a partial statement or narrative and leave key elements of a message out. And still others might not say anything at all in an effort not to give attention to a situation.

The problem with these approaches is that they ignore the basic human tendency to “fill in the blanks” when no information is given on important matters.

Employees, both individually and collectively, need proper communication and correct information. They need to perform their jobs, to understand the health of the company, and to know where their future lies within the organization. And when that information is not given, they will start to fill in the “blanks” or gaps to make sense of what is going on.

When your people fill in the gaps left open by your communication, they often come up with the wrong conclusions. These lead to mistrust, panic, apathy, or division and threaten to derail the culture of the organization. And if they deduce the missing information correctly, this also leads to mistrust of leadership and feeling that they weren’t trusted enough to be told the truth.

Here are some strategies to communicate, fill in the blanks, and close the information gaps in your messages to your people.

Here is what you can do to fill in the blanks before your people do:

  • Jump on the communication immediately. Have an immediate meeting with the staff and contact everyone to explain the reasons for the events that transpired. The longer you wait the more chance for incorrect information to be manufactured and disseminated.
  • Be upfront, honest, and transparent. Staff like it when you talk straight with them. Give them the facts and be brave enough to have those difficult discussions, particularly if there is doubt or indicators contrary to what you’re saying. The more this occurs, the more your words carry weight.
  • Give opportunity to listen and answer questions. By keeping an ear to the grapevine, you can gain a lot of insight into what people are feeling. Take every chance to talk with people in groups or individually to hear them, counter their fears and anxiety with the facts, and reassure them.
  • Speak to the culture, the mission, and the vision. Finish every conversation by leading people out of the negativity and toward the bigger picture. This is not an attempt to falsely redirect, but rather to truthfully re-calibrate everyone’s thinking towards the overall goal and where you are all heading. The more culture and vision are promoted in your organization, the less likely there will be room for filling in the blanks with anything off-base. Your people will be more readily able to say what is congruent to the organization and squelch rumors and gaps altogether.

Keep your finger on the pulse of your people. Close those communication gaps and work diligently to fill in the blanks that lead to culture breakdown.

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Paul LaRue is the creator of The UPwards Leader and Instigator for Lead Change Group. His background in senior leadership, strategic planning, culture change, and people and organizational development gives him unique insight into the workings of successful organizations. Paul has given speeches and training sessions for many public and private entities and stresses the virtue of a culture that centers around core values and character in leadership.

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