High-Trust Culture #6: Don’t Keep People In The Dark

February 22, 2014 /LinkedIn/ – Most of us have worked for organizations where the communication is less than perfect. We may know what’s going on in our group or department, but when it comes to the company’s broader goals, we’re in the dark. Where is the organization heading, what’s the plan, and what’s my role? Left to guess, we begin to wonder if leaders have a real plan at all.

Employees and team members have a hard time developing trust in their leaders if they’re unsure where the overall organization is headed, and whether that direction is good for them.

The antidote to this trust-killing lack of information is, of course, communication – and lots of it. Leaders must be determined to share the facts with everyone – simply, persuasively and thoroughly.

That means telling it like it is, during good times and bad. Trust-building organizations report unpleasant news as openly as they celebrate success. People are smart – they pick up on spin, partial truths, word-parsing and legalistic formulations. If you had a bad quarter, say so, and be clear about what your team is doing to adapt and improve. If you have to lay people off, don’t do it quietly, hoping competitors and the media won’t notice – take responsibility for your decision, and let people know what it means.

Just as the integrity of leaders is the sine qua non for a high-trust culture, communication is the fuel high-trust champions use to power trust. But what does that mean practically?

It means communications – spoken, written and nonverbal — must work in concert to eliminate confusion and misunderstandings. Memos meant to encourage initiative, for instance, can’t be contradicted by hoary policy manuals that punish risk-taking.

These basic approaches to communication will help your organization reflect its real values, build a reputation for trustworthiness, and save the pain of sending mixed messages:

1. Own the bad news: This is one of the most common mistakes leaders make: they seem to think that downplaying bad tidings will lessen the negative impact. Wrong. Tiptoeing around the truth is a great way to stomp on trust. When the real story comes out eventually, you’ll be on your heels, forced to explain why you weren’t up front about news that can affect the welfare of your team.

Far better to get out ahead of the news, and to use the roadblock as a chance to build trust by showing your integrity and respect for your colleagues. Any organization can spin, polish and minimize weak spots – and too many do. But most people prefer to be associated with a company in which leaders aren’t afraid to tell the truth, even if it’s not always a pretty picture. The truth has many clear benefits. For one, the more transparent you are about the challenges your organization is facing, the more likely people are to come up with creative approaches to conquer them.

2. Stay positive: This doesn’t mean sugarcoating the tough stuff. It means that when things are difficult, strong leaders steer clear of negativity, high-velocity language, shouting and outbursts. We’ve all had moments where disappointment, embarrassment, adrenaline and stress can mix into a dangerous cocktail of negative feeling. But we also know that it’s wiser to let these feelings pass before we talk to colleagues, write emails or call a group together. One punishing outburst or vulgar tirade by a leader and people will have a hard time trusting that person, or the organization’s leadership, ever again. And carelessly written emails tend to stay around forever. Trust grows slowly, but can wither in an instant.

3. More than words: Most modern research indicates that body language, gestures, and facial expressions are extremely potent forms of communication. In fact, the way you sit, how much you fidget, and whether or not you’re making eye contact send subtle messages that you’re not even aware of. Practice paying attention to your body language and other non-verbal cues.

Whether they know it or not, organizations communicate a great deal symbolically, too. It’s in the way people dress, where executives eat and park, or any of dozens of other small policies that can separate people, or bring them together. Be on the lookout for dated practices, and scrap them when they do more harm then good.

When it comes to nonverbal communication, though, there’s nothing that trumps a leader’s actions. Actions – whether kind or ruthless – say it all. There are some actions that everyone notices, but many more that few will see – and those are often the ones that count. As a team leader, your integrity rests disproportionately on the many small decisions you make every day. Even if people don’t see these, they’ll feel them – much in the way we can feel comfortable or agitated without fully knowing why.

The best communication thrives on truth, clarity and directness. Poor, infrequent or cleverly parsed communication can completely undermine trust – while open, honest and direct messaging is vital to building it.

By Joel Peterson