Recently a client of mine who once worked for a big firm told me an interesting story. One morning, she was summoned to a large meeting. After everyone had gathered, the COO spoke in a reassuring way, indicating that yes business was down, but no downsizing was planned. My client wasn’t buying it.

After the meeting, my client asked to have a word with the COO in private. When they were alone, she got right to the point. “So Jim—how many of us are getting laid off?”


The COO gawped at her. “How did you know?” “Every time you try to hide bad news,” my client replied, “you look down at your toes.”

Brain scientists and social anthropologists tell us that human beings are storytelling creatures. People are continuously transmitting stories—whether they know it or not. And the more aware leaders become of their hidden story giveaways, the more authentic, trustworthy, and credible they become.

Just imagine if Jim hadn’t looked down at his toes. Instead, he’d come forward and said, “As you know, the company is facing a downturn and, sadly, we will be letting people go. The leadership team has struggled with how best to tell you this. We felt that you deserve the most up-to-date, accurate information possible, which is why I’m giving it to you straight. We will be making every effort to help those who will be leaving the company.”

Even though this would be a difficult speech to give, it would preserve credibility for Jim and the company’s senior team. Credibility not only enhances a company’s ability to weather tough times, it gives all parties the maximum number of options. Who knows—perhaps in six months, the company will be able to re-hire some or all of the layoffs? Who would want to return to a company whose leaders deceived or patronized its workforce?

It’s precisely when tough messages must be conveyed that businesspeople must be most conscious of their storytelling. The right stories help leaders lead; and you can’t lead if you’re looking down at your toes!