You have something to say. How do you gracefully join a conversation?
The public health and financial crises are potentially evolving (and devolving) into a much larger social crisis. The voices of the unheard are now screaming. Diversity, inclusion, privilege and structural inequality are the heated topics of the struggle for change. Many of us have become deeply distrustful of social institutions, governments, the media and their leaders, but the same issues and rifts reside in our business organizations and team structures. People have very strong views rooted in their core values and beliefs, many of which have been repressed, suppressed and oppressed. This makes the conversations difficult and risky to have. It's a time to listen but it is not a time to stay silent.
Dialog must find a way. This is the leader's job.
Most of us have a gut instinctual response to the people we meet. This capacity evolved over a long history. It's built into our neurochemistry and how mirror neurons function along with the fight or flight functioning of the amygdala. We decide somewhat quickly whether to trust strangers. Or not. While we vary in how naturally open and trusting we are, and some of us have been burned more than others, betrayal is part of the human condition. It transcends our individual differences.
When something feels off in a relationship and fails the "smell test", I have at some level decided to be wary of that person. I suspect the presence of a hidden agenda. The agenda need not be nefarious, only unstated. This is true of both new relationships and ones with more history. It's tempting to see trust as something that builds between people over time. The more people get to know each other the more they tend to trust each other, but this does not explain why people who have just met can operate from a deep position of trust early in their relationships.
Trust makes it easier for people with differing views to talk.
When I first meet someone considering a coaching engagement, I ask a series of very personal, very direct and very intimate questions. This is part of getting to know someone at a deeper core level, in addition to understanding the current predicament they're in–whatever triggered the investigation in the first place. People have disclosed the most amazing things to me in the first hour I get to know them. They decided to trust me even though they have not had that much time to get to know me. It's less about me building trust and more about being trustworthy.
Trust is a function of transparency.
Before I get to know them and they get to know me, I explain how confidentiality works and the concept of the vault. Whatever is in the vault stays in the vault. I don't communicate that to anyone, for any reason or at any time: no one, nothing, never. I am not however like a therapist: the vault is the default but not everything is in the vault. Some of my clients put their entire relationship with me in the vault. No one even knows I'm working with them. I work with many people from the same organization, partners and team members. Some people put anything about their personal lives in the vault, some don't. Sometimes if they don't ask me to put something in the vault, I'll use my discretion, make a judgement about what they might find harmful or embarrassing and put it in the vault anyway. I understand what I am at liberty to say and not, when making a referral to a potential investor, client or employee. I have a significant group of clients who have graciously given me permission to disclose aspects of our coaching engagement, even the gory details. If you have ever heard me reference my work with a client, you can count on my having their permission. I'm generally very clear about this boundary and when I'm not, I ask. The vault is tight. If I learn something material to one partner from another partner, it's not my place to disclose it. I am not willing to be the holder of secrets; I work with the holder of the information to make the disclosure, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be. If someone asks me about a piece of information in someone else's vault, I simply say, "I don't answer questions like that."
Relationships move at the speed of trust.
I am committed to the integrity of the vault, a strong sense of fiduciary duty and a deep understanding of the mechanics of confidentiality and transparency. I believe this makes me a trustworthy person. But that's for you to judge. Although I've specified it here, it's not what I say but how you feel in my presence. In almost 30 years of professional practice, I've allowed only a very few minor breaches of the vault. I'm not perfect, obviously, but I've cleaned up my slips immediately. I've made no serious breach, as I understand that in my business, that would be the end of it.
When trust is present in a relationship, the people in the relationship are more willing to take leaps of faith with each other. This requires a willingness to be vulnerable and to overwrite the sometimes understandable tendency to be cautious and withhold key information for fear that it might be used against us. One of the greatest acts of vulnerability (and leadership) is to share your agenda and share your story with someone you don't know and who could use it against you. If you are the receiver of that information, you have been given a sacred trust. Don't squander it. Honor it.
Over the years of working with many teams, partnerships and complex organizations, I have developed a workable and elegant definition of transparency (and confidentiality):
As a leader I make timely disclosures of material information to relevant parties. If the person is not relevant I don't disclose it. If the information is not material I don't disclose it. If the timing is inappropriate or I don't have permission I don't disclose it. No one, nothing, never.
Constructive intention is usually the difference between a good result and a more controversial result. Listen first before you speak so you understand what’s important to the other person but don't be shy about expressing what’s important to you, even if it feels scary to do so. You have something important to say that also needs to be heard.
Strong leaders listen and speak with clean agendas. We need you out there.