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Debate in private, unite in public: The importance of leaders owning the message

  —  17/10/23

At a time when many organisations are experiencing great pressure, challenge and change, it is vital that leaders live true to this maxim: debate in private, unite in public. As a leader, you have a responsibility to own your company’s message – at least in front of others. This is particularly important when big and often controversial decisions are being made. That doesn’t mean you have to lie about your feelings or overplay your support for a change initiative you don’t agree with. Rather, it means aligning with the official company line without pointing fingers and delivering the information without criticising the decision or revealing too much of your personal bias.

The time for debating a change and raising your concerns is behind closed doors. By all means, champion your team’s interests or challenge a questionable idea, but be sure to do so in the appropriate forum and in an appropriate way. Robust conversation in the privacy of your leadership team meeting may be entirely appropriate, but once the decision is made and you leave that room, your job is to own the message, implement the change and lead your people through it. Don’t gossip about who voted for what or voiced which opinion. Don’t blame “them” and separate yourself from the rest of the leadership team. This is a time when unity is crucial: “The leadership has decided…” not “they decided”.

Avoidance makes problems grow

If you don’t like the change or don’t have all the information about how the change will impact your people, the temptation can be to avoid any responsibility for delivering the message and instead leave it up to the board, CEO, or communications team to be the messenger. This is a mistake. When you distance yourself from the message, put responsibility for delivering it onto someone else, or blame others for the change decision, it puts you in no-man’s land. You’re not in the leaders’ camp but you’re still suspicious in the eyes of your team. You risk losing respect for your leadership from those above and below you. Not only may you be perceived as weak or absent, but also your refusal to own the message gives tacit permission to your people to disengage from the change, making it very hard for you to then rally them behind it.

Disagreeing leads to dissent

It’s even harder to convince your people to adopt a change if you have outright expressed your disagreement with the decision to your people, then need to convince them to adopt it.

Disagreeing with the change publicly may put you “in” with your team but it is negating your leadership responsibility. In extreme cases, it may be seen as outright dissent and your leadership position may be taken away from you.

Remember, your role as a leader is to straddle the needs of the company and the needs of your people. You have a responsibility to communicate the change and a responsibility to your people to show them that regardless of whether it is seen as a good or bad thing, you are there to lead them through it. You have to accept the change is actually happening – whether you like it or not.

Are you in or are you out?

If you don’t feel like you have the information you need to be able to own the message and communicate the change, you need to influence up. Speak to your board, CEO or executive team. And if you really disagree with the change or message? This is where you have a choice. If the change is so far out of alignment with your personal values or morals that you are not ok having anything to do with it, and you’ve tried to influence up the chain but had no success, it may be time for you to proactively exit the organisation. Leave now before you get caught being unfaithful to who you are as a person. If you choose to stay, remember that your role is to lead your people through the change in the best way you can. Don’t get bogged down in what you can’t control. Focus on what you can influence. You have the power to support and guide your team through turbulent times by leading them courageously and helping them through – even if you don’t like the change that is happening.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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