Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Build Trust Through Transparency


Executive Summary:
We trust people whom we understand and whom we know are genuine.  Secrets and mystery produce an impression that one does not trust and will, therefore, drive others to be guarded.  Earn the trust of your personnel and colleagues, by disclosing your beliefs, plans, and what you know. 

The Rest of the Story:
I’ve run into this leadership lesson so many times that I believe it must be well known to all of us, but at the same time, I believe that we don’t reflect on it or make a conscious effort to put it into practice because so many business managers undermine the trust of their teams and peers with secrets and incomplete truths.  In fact many of us who have held management positions have been instructed by our senior leaders to keep secrets from our personnel.  So let’s examine for a few paragraphs how to win and lose trust by the information we disclose.

Take a moment and think about two or three people you know whom you trust the most.  They don’t need to be people with whom you work.  Now answer these questions.  Do they keep secrets from you?  Do they do things that affect you without discussing them with you first?  When they give you an answer, or tell you something, do they tell you just a fraction of the whole story?  Chances are you answered “no” to each question.  It is natural to mistrust people whom we do not understand, whose behavior we cannot predict, or who do not themselves show trust.  So, if we reverse that, in order to earn the trust of personnel, peers, friends, or family, we must be understood, predictable, and we must show trust.

Here is a quick story about how one manager lost a great deal of respect and trust over something we should all think is pretty small.  This manager, a friend of mine whom I respect, volunteered to take over responsibility for our office’s basic operational budget when the site manager took on new responsibilities elsewhere.  No one knew he had responsibility when he did.  He was also given the task of cutting spending because the budget was to be reduced.  He made some very shrewd decisions, reigned in some spending that was uncontrolled, and all things considered, did a nice job of minimizing the impact to office personnel. When he had his plan complete he called an all-hands meeting and explained everything to everyone all at once.  It sounds pretty straight forward, right?  Well, part of the news was that we would switch to a less expensive coffee and we would no longer have Styrofoam coffee cups provided, we would need to use our own washable cups.  You might be shocked at the reaction.  He certainly was.  He was very unpopular for quite some time.  People made unfriendly comments about how self-important he was to dictate the office spending.  The coffee cups became a overused joke in the office, and never a healthy one.  Some even dressed as coffee fairies and distributed some foam coffee cups to everyone out of a non-office budget.  Frankly, I was disappointed at the reaction and the nonsense.  Especially since a fair number already had a collection of coffee cups with the company logo on them.  But it wasn’t really about the cups.  It was about the surprise.  I believe that if he had gone into the meeting and laid out his findings and a proposal for the cuts, and shown everyone that by cutting out the coffee cups, we could all keep the other things we needed or wanted more, everyone would have blessed his plan and called him hero for having cut so much spending with so little impact to us.  I think that if the rest of the personnel only knew he had responsibility to cut costs, the announcement at the meeting wouldn’t have been a surprise.  The problem was that no one knew he was working on a plan that might affect him or her, no one had any input, and when he announced the change, everyone suddenly felt betrayed somehow.  Now the damage wasn’t permanent, but it wasn’t small either, yet the issue of the cups was really an embarrassingly small thing.   The damage resulted not because of the decision, but because it was all done in secret.

If you just take a moment, I’m certain that you can come up with some other examples of your own.  Talking with a friend and colleague a few days ago, he was suddenly distrustful of his manager after his performance review.  Apparently, a while back, his manager invited him to explain what was making him so frustrated, some of which turned out to be the manager’s actions.  The manager took my friend’s disclosure in stride, and my friend felt good about being able to talk about such things with his boss.  However, when he got some demerits on his performance review for not seeing eye-to-eye with his manager, and for treating his manager poorly over it by saying so, my friend lost faith.  It damaged his relationship with his manager, possibly irreparably, to learn that his manager didn’t accept my friend’s expostulations, but instead took them personally and held it against him for months without saying a word.  If he had just said so at the time, my friend surely would have been disappointed, but at least he would have known where he stood instead of feeling foolish for months of misperception and, more importantly, he wouldn’t feel betrayed.

When I reflect on my experiences with those I trust and those I don’t, I come to the conclusion that trust is a matter of faith.  Those whom I believe, I trust.  Therefore, to build trust we must be faithful, and we must be worthy of faith, we must be someone to believe in.  Put in those words, it sounds daunting.  But when I reflect on a list of stories like the two above, I come up with a relatively short list of guidelines to avoid the mistakes.

Here is what I have to offer:
  • Don’t lie (I know it’s obvious, but some people do)
  • Don’t keep secrets:  this includes your feelings about someone on your team.  If they have done something to disappoint you, tell them so right away.
  • Let people know what you believe – this includes your own values and beliefs, and also what you think the truth is regarding rumors, fears, possible futures, or possible causes.  If you don’t have enough to draw a conclusion say so, but if someone asks, give an honest answer.
  • Don’t just say what you know someone wants to hear, tell him what he needs to hear
  • If you have knowledge of something that affects others, share it, all of it.
  • If you know that you will impact someone with your actions, tell him or her before you take action
  • If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it to someone else
  • If a team member asks you a question, answer it as completely, straightly, and honestly as you can.  Disclose what you do know and don’t know.  Worst case, say that you aren’t allowed to talk about it, but will give an answer when you can.
  • If you know that rumors are passing or that people are concerned, create an opportunity for your team to ask questions and answer them the best you can.  Ask your own leaders what they can tell you about the rumors or concerns and bring that information back.


As leaders and managers, we can get into some sticky situations where we are caught in a trap of disclosing what our teams want or need to know and securing what management or others wish to keep secret.  Here are some examples and my own opinion about what to do.
  • If the information is personal about someone else, keep it personal.  Everyone will respect and trust you more for doing so, not less.
  • You do not need to disclose your own personal, non-workplace stuff.  It is respectable to keep your workplace and your personal life separate.
  • If your management says to keep a secret, do so except for two conditions.  1) It directly affects your team and you know they will feel betrayed if they find out you knew.  2) Someone on your team asks you directly about it.  In this case you need to pick a side, your management’s or your team member’s.  Which one do you need to trust you more, or will feel the most betrayed?  If you chose management, say you aren’t allowed to talk about it.  If you chose your team member, say you aren’t allowed to talk about it, explain the consequences if the information is leaking ahead of schedule, and then tell what you know.  The problem is that if you don't answer, and your team finds out you knew, it's as damaging as if you had outright lied.  In one case, I was told to keep a piece of information secret from my personnel until the Human Resources team could run its process.  I knew doing so would backfire on my team’s trust in me, so I told HR that I intended to disclose the information immediately and why.  They weren’t happy about it, but they understood, and I came out ahead in the end with both parties.
  • Don’t disclose every rumor, thought, or half-baked suspicion.  Appearing to be a rumormonger or worrywart won’t build trust.  Stick to what you know and believe, keep your suspicions to yourself.
  • My catchall question helps me decide if I talk or keep silent.  “If I were in his or her position, would I need to know this information or could I use it responsibly?”  If the answer is “yes,” I talk, if “no,” I keep my mouth shut.  It’s important to recognize that I use “could,” not “will.”  “Could” keeps it focused on the information.  “Will” makes it focused on how much I trust the person – a different issue.


I wrote above that trust is a form of faith.  We don’t place our faith in those who hide things from us.  It’s natural not to trust, those who themselves do not trust.  We feel betrayed when we believe one thing and find out the truth is something different.  Avoid all of these trust-destroying phenomena by hiding nothing.  Let everyone on your team know what you know, what you believe, and what you don’t know.  Give them a reason to believe you because you consistently speak the complete truth.  Show that you trust them by sharing yourself and your information.  Bottom line, it’s good to be a marvel, but not a mystery.

Stay wise, friends.

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