Why Leaders Avoid Sharing Strategy with Their Teams (and the Consequences of Keeping it a Secret)

Jeanet Wade
November 6, 2020

When I speak to audiences of business leaders about The Six Facets of Human Needs™ or what I often refer to as “the six Cs”, there is one subject that always results in a lively … well let’s just call it a “discussion.” And that is the debate around whether or not to share strategy with your team and, if so, with whom and to what extent.

Most leaders, I find, have a story in their heads about the humans on their team and how those humans would respond to a shared strategy. But before get into those stories, I want to talk about what happens to your ability to meet the needs of the people on your team when strategy is kept secret, shared only on a “need to know” basis with a select few. 

The first casualty is the loss of clarity, which is the first of the six Cs. Clarity is what allows us to have a shared understanding of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it needs to be done in order to create successful outcomes. Any member of your team (and by “team” I mean anyone who contributes in any way to the success of the business) who lacks clarity around company strategy is left to do what they’re told to do, when they’re told to do it, and the way they’re told to do it. They have no compelling reason to take pride in their work, to suggest ways they could get better results in their work, or to even show up fully for their work. 

Of course, if we don’t share that understanding then we experience the “othering” that happens with insider cliquing. We crave that sense of belonging and solidarity that shared information and goals can provide, so connection, the second of the 6 Cs is compromised, because people can’t connect over strategy if some are in the know and some are outside the circle. And if there’s anything you really want everyone to feel connected to each other about its company strategy, right? 

And how can you expect that people will feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution, the third of the 6 Cs, if they don’t have any clarity around what they’re really contributing to? How can you offer healthy challenges, the fourth C, if they don’t understand how meeting those challenges advances the goals of the company? How can you make people feel that you see them and consider them as an inherently value member of the team (consideration is the fifth C) if you don’t include them in the bigger conversation? And how can they have the confidence, the sixth C, to trust you, the company, or themselves if they have no visibility into what the company is working to create?

The bottom line, and I’ve seen it over and over, is that if you have not learned how to share your strategy for the company with the entire organization it is not possible to satisfy those universal needs that are requirements for actualizing the potential of a human team.

So why do so many people argue against sharing company strategy? In my experience there are four fears that hold leaders back from being transparent about strategy. 

#1  They don’t know how to share compelling vision.

It’s common for leaders not to realize that they lack the ability to communicate the strategy in a compelling and trust-inspiring way. But often when they tell me their stories of attempting to share strategy it’s clear that the outcomes they’ve experienced in the past were a direct result of the way the strategy was presented. So they’ve created a narrative that says if strategy is shared this is what you can expect when in fact, when strategy is shared concisely and honestly the outcome would have been very different. 

#2  They think people won’t get it and that they are likely to misinterpret what is said, causing fear, resentment, or panic.

The old paradigm of management held that most employees were emotional children who needed strong, parental-style leadership to protect them so that they could just do their jobs without worrying about the future of the company. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. People can sense when something is being hidden from them, and it’s far more likely that your secrecy will cause speculation, gossip, and instability than it is that anything you would share about your strategy would cause upheaval. 

#3  They are an insecure ego-based gatekeeper who demands to be the disseminator of all important information.

We’ve all worked with or for that manager who needs to believe that all access to information should be under their direct control. Ironically, the lack of confidence in their own worth that drives them to hold the keys so tightly communicates clearly their lack of confidence in their team which in turn costs the team confidence in themselves, each other, and leadership.  

#4  They think people don’t really care about strategy and prefer to just be told what to do.

This is perhaps the most common argument I hear, that no one really cares about strategy except management. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. The key (see point number one) is to share it in a compelling way that gives people something to care about. 

One of my favorite stories about strategy involves a client where most of their employees were line workers, many of whom spoke English as a second language and had no business experience or acumen. The managers argued hard that there was no point in sharing company strategy with these employees, that they wouldn’t get it nor would they care about it if they did, but I convinced them to try. We crafted the presentation and held an all-hands meeting with the industrial plant employees to share the company vision, how they were growing as an organization, and the importance of every person’s role in the growth. 

Six months later we did a follow up with the employees. When we asked one man to share his thoughts about the strategy meeting, he told us that his family was so proud of him because when he did well at work he “helped the Cardinals win.” When asked to share more he explained that quality of the product line he worked on was important because “Our clients are the people who take care of the Cardinals and their fans and when we make our clients look good then the fans have a good time and because the fans are happy then the Cardinals get good energy and they win.”

While this employee, like many of his peers, didn’t get everything that was shared or care about everything that was shared, he did get something that he cared about and that made him care more about his role in the company’s success. With even that level of clarity he felt more connected, he believed that his contribution was important and that he had value, not only to the line he worked on but to the company mission, and he was confident that the work he did had the power to create the kind of outcome that touched thousands of people. 

It’s natural for leaders to fall into the trap of going it alone. But it isn’t necessary or even effective. When you learn to be both compelling and transparent about company strategy you can become leveraged instead of lonely and truly harness the collective human energy in your business.