Trust in the Power of Honesty
This is my site Written by Alora on December 23, 2010 – 12:54 pm

I loved the show The West Wing. For a dozen reasons, I would break my general ‘no television’ policy and watch it because the relationships among the characters resonated with me from my time in both politics (when I was very young) and at startups. There is one social phenomenon that The West Wing portrayed particularly well, and which is always a struggle in organizations: ┬áTelling truth to power.

In The West Wing, one of the on-going themes was how the staff needed to “manage” the President. Whatever his quirks or brilliance, the President was like all of us: a flawed human being with complicated relationships, who was not always easy or pleasant to deal with, who could unnecessarily complicated situations due to his own personal issues, but whom the team respected tremendously. So they were often torn between adoration and respect, and frustration and fear.

This pheonenon is something that renowned business coach and author, Marshall Goldsmith, wrote about in one of my favorite business articles of all time: ‘It’s Not a Fair Fight When You Are the CEO.’ Goldsmith’s point is something that everyone knows and yet rarely discusses: without careful planning and management, leaders can quickly and easily fall into a trap where they are stiffling honesty, innovation and independence in their teams, simply by virtue of sitting at the top of the social food chain.

I was reminded of this when reading Michael Hyatt‘s recent article, “Finding the Courage to Speak Up.” In his post, he acknowledges a fear of confrontation, and how he has had to tackle it in his role as a leader. It strikes me that this is the other side of the same coin.

And in the end, it all boils down to trust. Does the leader of an organization engender trust in his team:

  • Do they trust him to let them be creative, independent professionals?
  • Do they trust him to be honest with them about their performance?
  • Do they trust him to support them in their professional goals?
  • Do they trust that he will protect them in the face of unreasonable behavior by clients or vendors?
  • Do they trust that he is a source of solutions, and not a contributor to the problems?

One of the reasons that I am a fan of the collaborative freelancer model of doing work vs. the traditional employee model is because, in an ideal scenario, it can require a higher degree of leadership accountability. If I am freelancing with a company, and the team I am working with is being led by someone who is abusive or unreasonable, it is often a much simpler process for me to walk away at the end of a project than it is if I am an actual employee. The model encourages me to be diversified in my client-base enough that it grants me the luxury of more choice when it comes to who I choose to work with.

How many times have employees seen a boss leave, only to be replaced by a new boss? It happens all the time. And it’s often an extremely difficult transition to make. In my corporate career, I have only ever stuck around through that transition one time. Every other time it happened, the working conditions that had made me want to stay in the job in the first place left when my old boss walked out the door. Statistically speaking, more than three-quarters of all people who leave their job, do so because they do not want to work for their boss anymore.

Again, this is a trust issue. And it’s one that is especially vital for entrepreneurs and small business owners. In many cases, you are your small business. And if the people you enlist on your team to build your business are not confident that they can trust you, then you are sunk before you ever get out of dry-dock. In my work with entrepreneurs, the thing I see most often is an entrepreneur who assumes the problems in his business are caused by those around him, and he is reluctant to consider if he could be creating the chaos himself, and the people on his team are merely reacting to it.

The flip-side of Michael Hyatt’s post is that fear of confrontation is not uncommon. Many people will find themselves taking a passive-aggressive position on a problem, merely to avoid a direct confrontation. And if you are the boss, and you have developed a reputation of being difficult or unpleasant to work with, then how many people do you honestly expect to tell you that? Isn’t it more likely that they will just quietly scurry away, and leave you standing alone, scrambling for a replacement?

Building trust is probably the single hardest thing to do, because it requires honesty, setting aside egos, not reacting emotionally and seeking to understand before being understood. Unless or until you demonstrate that you are not only capable of that, but that you’ve cultivated a habit of it, then the people you work with are always in danger of fearing your reaction just enough to avoid being honest with you.

And if you can’t keep people on your team, then who exactly is it that you’re trying to lead?