In the old Star Trek show, Captain Kirk and his crew were often transported down to a planet to accomplish some kind of important mission. Sometimes, the famous characters of the series would be accompanied by a ‘security detail’: A bunch of unknown crew members wearing red shirts. After a few episodes, the observant viewers of the Star Trek show quickly figured out that each of these unfortunate ‘red shirts’ would meet a tragic end somewhere along the line. The running joke was that the combination of being a nonfamous actor and wearing a red shirt, was a dead sentence for one’s short-lived Star Trek career.
In business life we often encounter corporate red shirts as well: These are people, projects, or businesses, which are actually marked to come to an untimely end, yet are surrounded by euphemisms and weasel words. Think of senior executives assigned to ‘special projects,’ or businesses which are under ‘strategic review,’ or initiatives which will be ‘realigned to serve the priorities of the organization.’
As a leader you need to realize that people quickly figure out what is going on. Everyone knows everything. People will also mirror your leadership behavior. If you want to maintain credibility and move the organization forward, it’s therefore important to consciously choose between being honest and being nice. If you find yourself surrounded by a sea of red shirts, it’s probably time to rethink the level of open and honest communication you would like to have with your people.