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Does Your Reassurance Ring True or Sting Like False Hope?

“Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

When author Stephen King wrote this line for his character who escapes Shawshank Prison, no one could have guessed that it would become one of the most famous lines in movie history. Hope is one of our defining qualities as human beings, so it’s no surprise that this quality continues to surface in moments of struggle or turbulent times.

Last year, I received an email about a different kind of hope from a former employee I’ll call Rebecca. Rebecca reflected on her tenure when I had accepted the position of CEO at the moment Prologis had fallen on tough times. She thanked me for not sugarcoating our situation and giving everyone false hope. Honesty during our town hall meetings was something she continues to remember and appreciate because it shaped her personally and professionally.

For many leaders, it’s tempting to boost morale by overemphasizing slim chances and silver linings, but Rebecca’s email affirmed that telling everyone the truth that our upcoming months wouldn’t be easy was the right choice. I’m a firm believer in leading with a positive influence, and that means giving people hope—but not false hope. Some of you might be asking “What’s the difference?”

Hope comes from a place of humility and honesty with a dose of reassurance that’s grounded in truth. I confessed to our employees that layoffs were keeping me awake at night, but that it was necessary to keep the company alive. I also assured them that we would do everything in our power to provide employees with a runway of support as they transitioned out of the company. We also committed to sharing what we knew as soon as we had new information. It was tough on all of us, but brutal honesty helped mitigate the collateral damage.

False hope is communication that’s characterized by omitting fragments of the hard truth to paint a different picture. If you gloss over any truths, you risk coming across as someone who’s out of touch with the situation. Leaders who use false hope tend to share developments in bits and pieces only when they have to, which doesn’t build trust. Ultimately, when you give people false reasons to feel hopeful, they eventually learn the truth, which makes the realization only that much harder. 

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Because we didn’t deliver false hope, Rebecca said she felt determined to move forward in good faith and stay focused on her work. That also meant not joining others in the lunchroom to engage in worst-case scenarios, letting herself get distracted by fear, or asking “What if?” 

I’m humbled by Rebecca’s feedback but also astonished that she still remembers how she felt in these town-hall moments. And I believe that these feelings instilled in her a sense of resilience during our uncertain times. I was delighted to learn in Rebecca’s email that she worked at Prologis for seven years and was grateful for the friendships she built and everything she learned on the job.

If you’ve ever doubted the impact your behavior has not only on the people you know but even those you don’t, consider Rebecca. She was an employee I did not interact with, but I’m deeply grateful that she reached out and shared her perspective. Her message is a powerful reminder that honesty is the best asset we have when we’d like our reassurance to ring true during challenging times.

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