Andy: Hey Emma, how’re you doing?
Emma: I’m going to say 7 out of 10. All things considered, I’m really okay. But it’s a gloomy, stressful time. I want this to be over.
Andy: Isn’t that the truth. I’ve been thinking about what the truth is, and about honesty: How do I answer hard questions with the honest truth when I don’t really know what that truth is? We’re in uncertainty. Maybe you, like me, don’t know if the project will be funded.
Emma: You’re right! I have no clue.
Andy: I don’t know if the company will retain the contractors, or honor the 30-day notice requirement. I don’t know if the furloughed will be asked back, or when. I don’t know if you refuse to come to work right now, your boss won’t (wrongfully) hold it against you when this is all over. I do not know!
Emma: It’s always been okay not to know the answer to something. Now, though, it’s mandatory. If you’re feeling unprepared, dumb, unqualified, like a liar and a fraud, please know: you’re not alone and also none of that is accurate.
Andy: Answering honestly when you’re uncertain is a sign of confidence. It’s a sign of mastery and trustworthiness: you are aware of the difference between what you know and what you do not know. Here are a few sentence starters for the truth, if you’re having a hard time putting words to the unknown — or if you’re just getting sick of saying “I don’t know” over and over and over again.
A Few Ways to Talk About What You Don’t Know
These are some of the sentences we’ve been using as we navigate uncertainty: at work, at home, with freaked-out friends and family. Some of them are old standards, some have been birthed in these past few Unprecedented Weeks.
In all honesty, I don’t know.
Normally, this would be a simple answer: [old answer here]. Right no [insert new answer and uncertainty here].
Normally, this would be a simple answer: Orders placed before 1pm arrive the next business day. Right now, I don’t know when orders will arrive. In the last week, orders have taken as many as 5 days.
Best case scenario: ________. Worst case scenario: ________. We’ll know more [date + next known information step]. Until then [next steps].
Best case scenario, we’re able to keep everyone on this project and work on it with the same timeline we had before. Worst case, we have to cancel the project and terminate the team’s contracts. We’ll know more on Thursday after the senior leadership meeting. That means we have two days in limbo. I’d like us to use this time to finalize the site design, so either way we’ll be on track for the project, or we’ll all have a small portfolio piece we’re proud of.
Let’s start with what’s different. Now, let’s talk about what hasn’t changed.
All events are cancelled, so that means all of our ticket sales for events are cancelled. That’s obviously a fundamental change for our business. We don’t know when events will return, so we can’t start promoting them yet, either. What hasn’t changed: we have a tremendous creative team, and arts businesses still need support. Let’s use the 10:30 meeting to brainstorm about what we can do during the quarantine that makes sense.
I’ve been hearing some murmurs and wanted to share what I know. Things will keep changing, but as of right now: [what you know to be true].
I’ve been hearing some murmurs and wanted to share what I know. Things will keep changing, but as of right now: Two facilities managers have been furloughed, Kylie and Gwynn. One of the co-chairs of the department has also been furloughed, Susan. Susan has decided that she will not return to her co-chair seat post-quarantine. I wish that I had more information to share about that, but that is all I know. One furlough, and then a second, can feel like the beginning of a domino chain. I do not know if there will be more furloughs, but I can promise when I do have new information to share, I will tell you as soon as possible.
Andy: This week, we also heard from a manager who’s trying to get a grip on the paranoia bubbling up in the ranks. People on her team are brokering in conspiracy theories and hypothesizing what’s going to happen next: who’s going to be let go first, who won’t be furloughed at all, that it’s actually all a ploy to lay everyone off, what the budget is really being spent on. Honestly, all extremely normal stuff for the type of environment we’re living in.
Emma: Super normal! I’ve brokered here and there myself these past few weeks because that’s what we do when we’re nervous. Unfortunately, as much as a manager might want it to stop — rumors are disruptive, distracting, they can make things a lot worse — there aren’t very many good ways to stop conspiracists from conspiring.
Andy: Oh, most definitely not. Just take a look at YouTube, where you can find a new conspiracy video every minute on almost any topic!
Emma: It’s not your job to silence the mutterings. You and your team can weather a few whispers of dissent and skepticism because you’re also going to be there consistently delivering the truth — even if that truth is “I honestly don’t know yet.”
Andy: If it makes it any easier, I don’t think it’s possible to be an effective totalitarian about this. So, you can either be an ineffective totalitarian, or you can try your hand at something else. When it comes to conspiracy chatter, I like to think of my communication style in terms of Winning the News Cycle. I want my message to be heard, remembered, and to overtake the conspiracy. Everyone can say and think what they will, but my message will be clear, human, honest, and unabating. And sometimes that message is as simple as: I don’t know yet what will happen next week. All we can do is what we can do today. And today…
When you can, do this live, on video or Zoom or in a recorded message — whatever version of “in person” you have right now. True story: this week I saw an email with the subject line “Sad news” that described a furlough, followed by another email days later also with the subject line “Sad news” describing an additional furlough. If at all possible, do not do this by email.
Emma: There’s a reason press conferences exist. Your tone matters! Your demeanor matters!
Andy: Remember, when someone reads an email you don’t get control of how they read it. They may hear it in the most panicked way possible, even if the news isn’t very ominous. After I have an in-person meeting, I like to follow up with the email. That way, they read the email in my voice.
Emma: Good luck. Hang in there. You’re doing a really great job.
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Throwback to Failure Edition
These stickers are from a 2018 newsletter about failing and feel as relevant as ever.