Truth, Trust, and Transparency – Where’s the line for you?

Mary is an up and coming leader in a Fortune 50 company. Over the course of her career, she has managed to zig zag her way into a nice position of great authority and power. However, of late, due to a significant corporate acquisition, she is now maneuvering new executive additions to her organization, and other changing tides within the company.

Recently, in several key planning meetings, Mary has been asked specific questions by her direct-reporting leadership team about her perspective of the future for their organization, the strategic direction they may be pursuing, possible headcount changes, and other pressing concerns from her leadership team. Prior to these meetings, Mary was made aware that there were going to be significant opportunities opening up for people at her level and within her organization. She learned that her particular organization has been tapped as the high potential division, and that her team had the opportunity to steer this particular segment of the company out of what could be a ‘mature and slowing’ market segment and associated slowing revenue stream to one of great promise and career opportunity.

This opens tremendous opportunities not only for Mary but for many others within the organization. This information, by the way, was not shared under any confidential instruction from the higher-ups; however, it was openly shared, as most information of this sort is, over cocktails at the bar between the leaders of the company.

With this as the backdrop, what do you think Mary did with this information?

  • Do you think she openly shared this intelligence with her leadership team?
  • Did she horde this information, waiting to get her own career plan and strategy in place before sharing this with others who could potentially be ‘competition’ for her in the management hierarchy?
  • Or did she share just bits and pieces of what she knows, so that she still had the upper hand?

This particular situation is real. And the choice Mary made was to be cagey and not forthcoming. She positioned herself as ‘being in the know,’ yet not willing to share ‘all she knew.’ She relished being seen as the ‘smartest person in the room’ and certainly the most connected to the ‘higher ups.’

Her approach didn’t pass the sniff test. Her team and her peers were onto her game. By sharing only bits and pieces, she left her team scared and unsure of their direction. Individually and collectively, she fostered a supreme lack of trust on several levels, and most importantly questioning the team’s most fundamental relationship with her as their leader.

Frankly, we have all probably known someone in our corporate experiences that has chosen each of these approaches. As recessionary pressures get more real, fear will increasingly drive these behaviors. Fear of being passed over, fear of losing power to someone smarter than you, fear of sharing information which someone may use to ‘out maneuver’ you, fear of losing the position you have fought so hard to attain. Hard times can bring out the best, and the worst, in everyone.

So what do many do when they feel at risk or in a competitive situation? They horde information, they steal credit from people they work for/with, they brown nose and ‘push paper’ while others do the heavy lifting, they personally grand stand when someone on their team does a good job, or they focus solely on internal politics.

What happens to their teams as a result? Dysfunction, lack of trust, lack of collaboration, development of a team culture of cagey secrecy, too much time playing the internal politics and not enough time with clients. Net: an overall lack of performance.

What happens as a result to the leader? Well, some of you may be saying they get promoted with top dollar bonuses. I won’t lie to you, that has certainly happened; and, will continue to happen. Many do experience short term rewards, promotions, and increased span of control. However, what I will argue is that the long term success of this style of leadership is short lived. Life is long and reputations are lifelong.

Which brings me to my message this week: there is supreme merit, not to mention power, in telling the truth, trusting your people and working with open transparency. These Three T’s – truth, trust, transparency – are the magic to leading strong, bonded teams through this recessionary time and beyond. A few salient points:

1. Truth and Trust Need Care.

At the end of the day, with any “real team,” trust is at the root of it. If you have been lucky enough to be on a team such as this you know what I mean. Everyone pulls together, egos aside. Blood, sweat and tears are given in equal measure by every member. It is a fabulous experience and one that fuels itself, as the energy is constantly being reborn within the team. This ‘trust alchemy’ does not happen by accident. Leaders foster this. Leaders nurture this. Leaders take care with this. Leaders bestow trust easily and freely.

How is this done? It’s not really that hard – if we can just get out of our own way. It is done through truly listening to members of the team (how many times have I written about this now?).

  • valuing what they say,
  • telling the truth – openly and transparently,
  • treating others the way you would want to be treated,
  • asking no one to do what you would not do yourself,
  • having faith in the team to deliver in a manner each team member would be proud,
  • consistently doing what you say you are going to do (when you were going to do it),
  • and giving ‘tough love’ (i.e. telling the truth even when it may be really hard) when it is warranted.

One last observation on ‘truth and trust.’ You will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, if either is not present. You will also know when they are.

2. Know and Understand the Realities of Trust and Transparency

Ok, I hear it already. “Kristin that is simply not right. I believe trust is earned. Until someone has proven to me they are trustworthy I am not going to gamble on them. Furthermore, I believe a little ‘capitalistic free enterprise competition’ on the team is great in elevating our team performance. It’s what has made our country great, after all! Finally, Kristin, I am simply not going to go ‘fully transparent’ with my team. They need them to see me strong and upright. I can’t show my insecurities and expect them to want to follow me!”

So, let me ask you a few questions. How have you felt when your manager pits you against a member of your team to ‘prove’ who is worthy for a promotion or more responsibility? Of the leaders you have admired over the years, have they shared their doubts and questions with you at one time or another? What makes us think we have to ‘earn trust’ before trust is given? Of the leaders who have trusted you, have you always had a ‘track record’ with them personally before they have bestowed trust in you?

Lest you think I am swimming in the pool of naiveté, let me offer a few guard rails for consideration.

  • As with any situation, there is risk. Whenever anyone extends trust, they also risk being mistaken. That goes with the territory.
  • In addition, realize that the person with the most power has the greatest responsibility to bestow trust. If leaders withhold trust, others will do the same. If leaders bestow trust, others will follow that lead, as well.
  • Finally, from my experience, leaders that freely give trust, breed trust, with and between the team members. This unleashes an esprit de corp which is unstoppable and unbreakable. Equally, when leaders are transparent in their aspirations, as well as their concerns, the team bonds to and with the leader in a way that is undeniable, and provides a competitive force unlike any other.

Sure, we all have our tales of woe. Believe me, I have experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly relative to team leaders. Yet, I also believe we have tales of great successes due to listening and speaking the truth, trusting our fellow team members and being honestly transparent with our beliefs.

So back to Mary, what was the end of her story?  Not surprisingly, in that position, Mary found only marginal success with her team. She plateaued on her rise within the company. Her reputation grew as being ‘out for herself’, and not a team player. Her peers did not want to partner with her on internal initiatives, and her direct reports did not trust her nor want to work for her. Many held on just to ‘have a job”; yet most sought other positions on teams which fostered growth and community. Thus, the senior leadership of the company sidelined her from the ‘fast track’. This is not to say that Mary can not turn her career around; though, candidly, she will have to work doubly hard to reinvent her reputation within the company.

So what can we learn from this?

Emerson sums it up perfectly: “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly, and they will show themselves great.”

And I will add, particularly in this day and time, only through pulling together, trusting ourselves and holding ourselves accountable to these same high standards will we collectively attain the greatness which is within our reach.