In today’s information-overloaded workplace, it can be challenging for leaders to decide what to communicate to employees and what to withhold. It’s easy to say to yourself, “They don’t really need to know all that” or “My team won’t really understand” or “I don’t think they can handle that news right now.” But the truth is that, by withholding information to make things easier on your employees, you may inadvertently lose their trust and send their minds spiraling into panic and worst-case thinking.

That’s because, when employees don’t get the information they need, including the answers to the fundamental four questions:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. What are we doing to get there?
  3. How can I contribute?
  4. What’s in it for me?

They tend to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions. Often, those assumptions are worst-case scenarios. This is not a reflection on your leadership – it’s just natural human insecurity. People can tend to assume the worst in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

Lack of information and unanswered questions can start what I call the “silence spiral” among your employees:

Silence ⇒ Doubt ⇒ Fear ⇒ Panic ⇒ Worst-Case Thinking

The silence spiral undermines trust and puts a damper on passion. It can take five minutes or five weeks to play out, but, in most cases, it happens more rapidly than you would imagine. A closed office door, a vague reply to an honest question, an unreciprocated greeting as you pass in the hallway, or a cancelled one-on-one meeting without explanation can all be triggers. Even if these actions take place with good reason, if they are not the norm, they can be enough to open the door of doubt in the minds of your employees.

Prevent the silence spiral by being proactive. Nothing compares to hearing the facts directly from the boss. For example, if you learn about a new project that won’t affect your team for a few months, go ahead and tell the team members about it now. Even if it’s too soon for them to start preparing, at least they won’t be caught off guard or be inclined to listen to and perpetuate rumors.

Winning leaders realize that they are not really protecting their teams by keeping them in the dark. They know that their employees will either find out on their own or may make assumptions that are worse than reality. More important, silence chips away at trust. So use every interaction, meeting and communiqué as an opportunity to communicate openly and honestly with your team.

Find more strategies for creating a purpose-driven team in Stick with It: Mastering the Art of Adherence.