Voice Over - A Bank of Trust
Like the Eskimos with their 40 some odd words for snow, in business we seem to have dozens of ways to implore ourselves to tell the truth. Each offers a window into the soul of a generation of leaders and the tensions that build between management and labour: candour, transparency, authenticity, openness, genuineness, open door, connection, sincerity, accessibility. Now I know that these words are not identical. I KNOW. But… let’s face it. They are really all about the same attempt to cross the invisible gap between those in positions of authority, accountability and responsibility and those who have less power in the relationship.
In the organisation within which I am currently embedded, the phrase du jour is “bank of trust.” This is refreshing, actually. We are actually using the word trust to represent… trust. Now that’s honesty, transparency, and authenticity right there. The metaphor makes sense. When we tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we add to the reservoir of relationship between ourselves and the people with whom we work. We become ‘trustworthy’.
Trust worthy. Worth trusting. worthy (adj) Having or showing the qualities that deserve the specified action or regard, characterised by good intent but lacking in humour or imagination. We deserve the truth. We earn the truth. We also don’t faff around about it. We say what we are going to do, do what we said we would, tell you we have done it. And every time I do the thing I said I would, I build up a bit in the reserve bucket. Bit by bit I earn your regard.
Then we lie. Don’t bristle. That’s exactly what we do as leaders. We learn something – a strategy, a business decision, an NDA entered into, due diligence on a purchase or sale, a budget decision requiring job loss – you name it. There at least as many reasons to lie as there are to tell the truth. And again, we have so many words to explain those lies. To justify those lies. To shift them from the active voice, “I am lying to you” to the passive, “We were told to say this thing” shifting the blame, such as it is, to some faceless corporate other. Then when the inevitable reality on the ground fails to match our words, the jig is up, and the bank of trust we have with the people we influence and lead abruptly empties.
As children, we were taught to always tell the truth. Part of #adulting is acquiring the skill and the wisdom to lie when we have to. It’s not true that all lies are morally unjust, particularly in business: a company needs to shut down one factory in order to keep the rest of the company productive, another needs to acquire a new start up to get technology its own developers are not capable of delivering, a third restructures its network to add people to high volume locations and close franchises in non-profitable ones.
You all have this story: a time when the thing you had to do and say in the moment was a bald faced lie, and yet nevertheless it was the right and just thing to do in that moment. Yet no matter how gracefully you handled the situation, no matter how valid the reason for the lie, people you led, people who believed in you just stopped believing you. It hurts. Seeing that loss in their eyes, reflecting it back on yourself, someplace inside you wondering how you could simply parrot ‘their’ key messages.
Real leaders lie really well. Paradoxically, I’d say the best ones lie with sincerity, authenticity, openness and compassion. Every time a business requires that Big Lie, a good leader doesn’t try to justify it, doesn’t blindly accept the party line, and more importantly doesn’t absolve themselves in the telling. They take those moments to understand themselves to be human, part of a system, and making the best of a variety of more or less equally bad choices. The best leaders don't absolve themselves of the guilt or pretend that it's someone else's lie. They recognize that the lie is part of how we navigate a challenging world minimizing the impact to the people we care about within the constraints we’re given.
Every time a business asks you to lie, challenge yourself. Examine the lie from every single angle and aspect. Put yourself in the shoes of your people and ask, “Would I ever come around to understanding why they didn’t tell me the truth from the beginning?” And objective reality check here... some lies are just not worth telling, the damage to your own soul is too great. Many, however, … possibly most… of the lies companies ask us to tell are just business, a necessary evil.
Whether you choose to tell the lie is ultimately your decision. Even a non-decision is a decision. No matter the path you take, you hurt someone. It takes a toll on that bank of trust., reduces you in the eyes of the people you need to believe in you. So when you lie, know why. Understand it. Embrace it. Own it. Accept the burden. If you are trust worthy, eventually the people around you will accept the both the lie AND the truth as well.
“Embrace the truth; don't be afraid of it. Everything that happens in our life can be learned from if we allow ourselves to ask why it happened. This is how we grow and change.” ~ David Meltzer