Leadership happy talk is the propensity for leaders to paint a rosy picture of how the business is performing to their team when the business is struggling.
Oftentimes, business owners and executives engage in leadership happy talk because they think it is the more mature thing to do. They’d rather hold onto the stress and frustration of business struggles and not put it on other people.
This might seem like a laudable motivation: why stress out your team? But refusing to share and be vulnerable with team members ultimately creates missed opportunities for the team to tackle problems together. This leads to poor outcomes like surprise layoffs, outbursts from leaders, and misallocated priorities during crucial periods.
This article covers some of the causes of leadership happy talk, how to catch yourself engaging in leadership happy talk, how to overcome it, and why it is critical to not engage in this behavior.
Leadership happy talk stems from pressures, both real and perceived, to show the world and one’s team that everything is going great. Many startups engage in this behavior because they need to put on a show and generate “buzz” so investors perceive their company to be the next hot business. Many business owners engage in this behavior because they fear their employees will leave if the business isn’t performing well. From a business owner’s perspective, they would rather wait and hope their business turns around. They’d rather risk a surprise layoff than inform their employees that the business is struggling and engage them in a potential solution. Many executives for large companies engage in this behavior because they have shareholders and quarterly goals to meet, and they would rather keep up an obvious charade rather than risk looking ineffectual. But only luck can save these leaders from near-certain failure if they aren’t willing to open up.
There’s also the egotistical explanation: They want everyone to think they are a success.
As a leader, you might be reading this and thinking to yourself, “what if the news of our business struggling has nothing to do with my employees’ work? How will that help?”
The answer: if this person is at risk of getting laid off, being asked to work reduced hours or for reduced compensation, or having their work impacted in any way at all, they should know about it.
Why? This initial worry assumes that your team can’t handle the truth or that they may leave upon learning the news. That risk pales in comparison to the possible reward from including them in a solution that saves your business.
By not sharing the truth of the business’s situation with the entire team, leaders are communicating to their team that they don’t trust them to work together on identifying a solution or that they aren’t smart enough to have any good ideas on how to solve the issue.
No business is going gangbusters all the time every day. Businesses tend to oscillate between up periods and down periods. As a leader, it may be tempting to paint the down periods with a rose hue because things could turn around. However, when leaders find themselves in a position of identifying some negative trends, the best decision is transparency and collaboration.
By being vulnerable instead of stoic, leaders are communicating that they trust their team and that they value their perspective. Sure, some investors may choose not to invest, some employees may leave at the first sign of bad news, the stock price might go down temporarily, but leaders that engage in openness, transparency, and collaboration lead to healthier more resilient businesses. Strong, resilient businesses are much more likely to succeed long-term compared to businesses run by leaders that engage in leadership happy talk and can’t tell their employees the truth. Next time business is slow, take a chance and open up to your team. The solution could be right in front of your eyes, all you had to do was ask.