Picture this scene from a meeting at a typical company: An executive team sits in a conference room, looking like they would rather be somewhere else. The CEO walks in. After a quick hello, he launches the meeting. He’s upset about a recent strategic failure. What went wrong? Who is accountable? The room is silent. They all know the answer—the CEO dropped the ball—but no one wants to say it. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, a brave soul finally speaks up to remind the CEO that some promised support had not been given. The CEO becomes angry and defensive. Suddenly, everyone else is chiming in to defend him and soothe his feelings. The lone dissenter sinks down in his chair, feeling betrayed and worrying about his job.
Famed author Patrick Lencioni has seen this scenario play out in dozens of companies. The executive team can’t figure out why the organization isn’t healthy and growing. They know communication could be better, but can’t articulate how. They privately talk about their own lack of trust for others on the team, but they can’t see the role it could be playing in stunting that growth. Lencioni knows that trust is absolutely vital for company health; now he has to convince them to believe it, and to take the necessary steps to create an environment where trust thrives.
This isn’t easy! Lencioni describes it: “vulnerability-based trust, the kind of trust when a team can be completely vulnerable with each other... around their strengths, their weaknesses, when they know the answer, when they don’t know the answer, when they’ve made a mistake or when they need to apologize.” To many of the executive teams he coaches, this sounds impossible. Sensitive egos, emotional discomfort, office politics, competition—there are so many reasons to keep your guard up and stay silent.
But the consequences can be dire. In the story above, the CEO was unwilling to admit the mistake in front of his team. Instead of encouraging their colleague to be honest, the others chose to diffuse the situation by pacifying the boss. How could anyone receive honest feedback or solve problems in an environment like that? Instead, the leaders of the company created a culture where information doesn’t flow, there’s no room for creative conflict, and zero accountability. In the end, the CEO moved on to a different job. The business eventually failed. Lencioni has seen this happen more than once.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Lencioni suggests that top executives lead by example. A CEO can demonstrate vulnerability by inviting constructive criticism, owning up to mistakes, and becoming accountable to his team. He can open the floor to discussion on the “hows and whys” when failure occurs, and encourage frank analysis. This frees the company to improve, innovate, and generate forward momentum. But it only happens when there is sufficient trust in the room.
By becoming more vulnerable, you show your followers that you are smart enough to know both your strengths and weaknesses, wise enough to seek information when you need it, and confident enough to appreciate others’ abilities. Human trust those who respect and value them, and give their trust in return. Once that foundation is in place, your company can leverage trust to solve problems, prevent future mistakes, and create the strategies you need to grow.