A Lesson From Springsteen about Trust

One of the most common complaints I hear from leaders has to do with the team’s supposed inability to accept their responsibility to tell the truth.

Here’s how this often plays out. There’s some kind of problem, some kind of oversight, some kind of challenge, and the leader wants to get to the bottom of it – – as a prosecutor. The word goes out: Who authorized this? And the inquisition is on.

For some mysterious reason, no one wants to own up to being the responsible party who authorized the decision. The leader digs and digs, questions and questions, prosecutes and prosecutes… and finally catches someone in a lie. Then the leader has two prosecutorial buttons to push: who made the mistake, and who lied about it. God help you if you happen to be the person who did both.

Whenever I hear a leader holding forth on his or her team’s consistent failure to tell the truth, I have a strong suspicion, one that usually turns out to be justified, that the deeper problem is a cultural one.

Here’s what is really happening. The leader hasn’t yet made people comfortable with the prospect of telling the truth. People don’t have a level of trust in the relationship with the leader that makes the truth a viable option. Simply put, the people just do not feel safe in their environment. And whose fault is that?

In this situation, employees suspect that telling the whole truth, when the inquisition is on, is a choice that may lead to big problems. And you know what? They usually have plenty of evidence backing up that belief!

Leaders who prosecute their own teams in this way are not accountable.

Specifically, they are not personally accountable to fulfilling a critical commitment: the commitment to stand by people in both their failures and their successes… as long as the failures are used as learning opportunities.

There is usually a second relevant commitment to take into account here, which is the leader’s commitment to set the personal example of telling the truth to the team, even when it hurts. My experience is that leaders who habitually complain about teams who won’t tell them the truth have major personal accountability gaps in both areas. Which means there are major trust gaps.

Recently I watched the Springsteen on Broadway special on Netflix. By the way, it’s an amazing show, a remarkable piece of honest, intimate theatre, and I highly recommend it, whether or not you consider yourself a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music. There are a lot of extraordinary moments in this special, but I was struck by one particular insight, deeply relevant to leaders, that Springsteen shared from the stage. He said: “Trust is allowing others to see our real self.”

If your team members don’t tell you the truth, consider the possibility that they don’t yet trust you enough to do so. Maybe you haven’t yet made it safe for them to let you see their real self. Maybe they feel this way because they suspect that you haven’t shared your real self. If your people see you as open, as someone who is willing to share weaknesses and shortcomings as well as strengths, as someone who is not afraid of transparency, then they will know it is safe to be open with you.

If you want to change the dynamic, and I hope you do, make an explicit personal commitment, right out loud, to stand by them when they succeed and when they fail. Then make a personal commitment to tell them the truth no matter what, and to always be transparent. And stand by both of those commitments.

That’s accountable leadership – – the kind of leadership that inspires real commitment and real transparency from the team. And it’s the kind of leadership that builds accountability in the workplace.

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November 2021
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