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Why I Don’t Shield My Team from Bad News

A prevalent concept is the idea that as a CEO or executive of a company, you need to shield your team from bad news, the risks of a startup, and other negative aspects that are inevitable on the startup journey.

I  believe this concept could actually be quite dangerous.

One of our core values at Buffer is to default to transparency. This means absolutely everything in the company is shared knowledge.

It was scary at first, not least because the idea goes very much against the grain. I found myself hesitating, not because I genuinely could think of reasons not to share, but simply because no one else shares some of the things we’ve shared.

shielding bad news

Shielding your team leads to distrust

I think one of the most fascinating things about withholding information of any kind is the message it unknowingly sends to the team.

If you hold back information, you are silently telling your team that you don’t trust them. Frédéric Laloux put it well in Reinventing Organizations:

“In most workplaces, valuable information goes to important people first and then trickles down to the less important. Sensitive information is best kept within the confined circle of top management. The underlying assumption is that employees cannot be trusted; their reactions could be unpredictable and unproductive, and they might seek to extract advantages if they receive too much information.”

The reason starting a trend of secrecy is so dangerous is that it’s self-reinforcing:

“Because the practice is based on distrust, it in turn breeds distrust.”

That is, the policies you set up based on these assumptions might trigger people to try to cheat the system, because they start to despise it. Once you find people are doing this, the natural thing is to introduce yet more controls and restrictions.

Withholding information strains leaders

Beyond affecting the culture and spirit of your team, I believe that withholding information puts unnecessary strain on yourself as a founder. A startup journey is a series of many ups and downs, and the lows can really be difficult. There are many sad examples of things becoming too much for a founder, and more often than not they’ve kept the stress to themselves.

The traditional structure of a company in a hierarchy naturally leads to a pyramid, with a single person at the top. The law of pressure in physics can illustrate the outcome here:

pressure = force/area

That is, the smaller the area, the higher the pressure. In the following example, the pressure from under an elephant’s feet is far less than that from under a woman’s stiletto heels:

stiletto vs. elephant diagram

If bad news comes up and you take the whole burden on yourself, the pressure is much higher than if that news is shared across many people.

Consider the role of the ego at play

Another reflection for me is that whenever I have felt that I should hold something back from people in the team, I believe it is often my ego at play. I am essentially saying that I can handle the situation better or take more than others in the team.

It’s as if I’m saying that I am more responsible than the rest of the team. It’s like I’m treating my team like children, which is ironic because many people in the team have children and I don’t yet! I am convinced that if we can let go of our ego as leaders and share information and responsibility, we will be pleasantly surprised.

Holding onto information or key decisions is in a lot of ways a fear of giving up control, at the expense of trust and moving faster thanks to shared decision-making. I think often as leaders we feel a need for control and privileges, and this comes almost entirely from ego. One of the reasons I try to practice daily meditation is to more easily act without ego.

Do you share bad news?

Do you guard your team from some of the tough decisions and risks of your company? Do you think that in some cases we should? I’d love to hear any thoughts at all on this topic.

  • Excellent points and well taken (and well written I must say) BUT… I don’t remember sharing everything with my kids when they were young. And there are some similarities. There are just some things that should stay at the top. That’s why you get the BIG bucks right?!

  • Kody Atkinson

    This is really interesting. My first thought was that some filtering might be needed to avoid adding stress to team members by including them on bad news that is outside their role. Why give them stress about something they have no control over?
    The more I thought about it, though, the more your way makes sense to me. After all, maybe someone in a different role might have some useful input on a problem that the people handling that problem don’t see. I think, perhaps more importantly, sharing bad news breeds empathy. Even if I can’t help you with the problem you are struggling with, being aware of the issue allows me to be supportive and is going to make me more understanding in my dealings with you. It never hurts to be more aware and more compassionate!
    Another awesome Buffer lesson :D

  • Great points Joel. Hiding bad news certainly brings about many risks for how the rest of the team will react when the inevitably find out. Certainly much better to be upfront and open about it. Bringing it before the entire team also gives others the opportunity to help offer their thoughts and help so you don’t have to shoulder it all yourself. Sure seems to make more sense to operate that way rather than the way most companies choose to manage bad news.

    Was there a specific event that caused you to want to share these thoughts on the topic?

  • Sébastien Duquette

    Interesting article Joel. I would be interested on your perspective on how to deliver such bad news eg. do you do it via emails, meeting, 1:1, do you disclose to the whole team at the same time, anything to avoid etc.

  • Sylvia

    Joel, have you learned to share this “bad news” to the whole group at once or in segments? And any reasons why? Thanks so much for letting us learn from your experience!

  • Joel, I think this is a great example of what separates leaders from managers. It takes a big person to be able to share the good, bad, and ugly. It takes no ego to face embarrassment when you have to admit things aren’t right and you may be the one to blame … but it’s humbling and empowering.

    When I read this I immediately thought of Zirtual. Sometimes there’s just never a good time for bad news, but you make a great case for always being transparent even at the cost of yourself. I’ve learned that when you tell your own story, even the ugly parts, no one can take that story and mold it into something else. Because, especially in the corporate world, when important information isn’t shared, rumors start and a bad situation turns into something worse.

  • Hey Joel, perfect post, thanks for that. Nice example of how to let go of ego and trust your employees and team. Would you be so kind and share some examples of bad news? I mean, I tend to think that there are no bad news. They might look bad, but at the end they force you to do something which can in the long run or in fact be great for you, others or your company. Even something like a total bankruptcy.
    In fact I believe that no news are bad news :) Transparency in personal life and work are very important to me these days and I try to show this to others in a way “Don’t worry to tell me anything, I’ll just listen and support you, no matter how bad or good the news will be, just be transparent and honest”

    Thanks again, I love to read about transparency and how you reflect it in Buffer.

  • SashaBondareva

    I love how innovative you are! All arguments make logical sense. But I have been withholding bad news from my people only to keep them happy when no action was required from them. But whenever it was needed and it was better to think together, I’ve been sharing the news with them as with peers.

  • Joey Daly Hansen

    Fascinating post and especially interesting to consider applying the stiletto/elephant example not only in the context of business, but perhaps also marriage, or parenting, or relationships in general. I’ve been guilty of “managing the information” so to speak in all types of business and personal relationships,sometimes with unexpected and difficult outcomes. I appreciate your perspective on this topic!

  • Great read, Joel! Cheers to you and your team for the culture and honesty you have created at Buffer. It’s refreshing to see this type of transparency.

  • Withholding information from your employees also leads to rumors among the office workers, especially those who work far from the main office. Usually these lead to the issue getting larger than expected until it’s out of your control.
    Bravo to you Joel for going against expectations and making it work contrary to the norm.

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