Cultivating a Culture of Trust, Respect and Engagement
In this third and final part of my “speaking your truth in the workplace” series, we’ll explore how you can work to create professional environments where people feel free to share their truth openly, empowering greater diversity of thought, higher innovation, increased creativity, and more effective collaboration.
Although this post is aimed at people in leadership roles, I encourage you – no matter what level you are at – to recognize the power in how you choose to show up. Taking 100% responsibility for your world is how you lead from any place, any time.
Why Truth Matters
Why do you want people fully speaking their truth? Wouldn’t that just cause more conflict? More time wasted getting everyone on the same page?
These concerns are also rooted in that old, command-and-control style of management. We know now that this style only stifles creativity and causes people to feel like they need to keep up their “work self” personas.
The truth is, many people get bogged down in culture, admin, politics and so on, and don’t allow their true free spirit to shine. They hold back on what they want to bring forward in terms of creativity.
This leads to a whole lot of energy going into appearances instead of substance. People hold back ideas because they don’t want to risk judgement. They shy away from innovation because they fear making mistakes. They don’t speak up about problems because they don’t want to be seen as troublemakers.
This all takes a lot of energy and leaves people feeling disconnected, unfulfilled, unmotivated and disengaged.
On the other hand, when you work to cultivate a workplace environment that welcomes truth and all that comes with it, people come alive and your organization reaps the benefits.
What Truth Needs to Thrive
There are so many reasons why people might hold back their truth. Often, these reasons are deeply embedded in their social, cultural and/or familial fabric. It takes a huge amount of courage to step into truth. That’s why, the number one thing truth needs in order to thrive is safety.
For someone to come to you and say, for example, “I think I made a mistake and I’m struggling with how to fix it”, they need to feel completely safe doing so. They need to trust that their honesty will be met with compassion and that their basic humanity will be respected. They need to feel that when they bring their truth to their boss, that their boss is a human being who understands and respects the experience of being human.
When, on the other hand, truth is met with shame and blame, people don’t feel safe. They respond with fear and fear is not respect. Respect is when someone recognizes you as a true leader – a guide, a coach, a mentor, an ally – a person who holds space for truth and helps light the way forward.
Where to Begin in Creating Safety for Truth
Just like any other shift you want to create, it starts with you. You can’t lead people where you aren’t willing to go. You also can’t ensure your efforts are fully aligned with what you want to create unless YOU are fully aligned with it first.
As a leader, how you show up and the example you set is far more influential than any policy. It’s all well and good to say, “We’re going to start speaking our truth”, but it’s only when people see it in action from those at the top that they begin to feel safe
doing it themselves.
How to Cultivate a Culture of Truth
The steps and practices I share below are primarily about you as a leader. If you want those you lead to embrace truth, you may be wondering why the focus is on you, and not on techniques you can put into place for others. I’m going to repeat what I said above because it is so, so important: you can’t lead people where you aren’t willing to go.
Culture comes from the top. You can’t expect the people you lead to embrace something that isn’t openly practiced at higher levels. You must get leadership on board because that’s where the culture shift has to start. It’s true, people at all levels can have an impact. But their impact will be stunted if it isn’t welcomed by leadership. That’s when good people jump ship.
Start with you and the rest will follow.
Here are 9 practices for creating a workplace environment that embraces and encourages truth:
Take 100% responsibility for your intention.
You are responsible for what you bring to every situation – nothing more, nothing less. Before you respond to what’s coming up around you, ask yourself, “Is my response intended to open up a conversation, or to shut it down?”
Curiosity is the ultimate path to truth. When your intention is to be curious, that naturally draws truth to the surface and you can move towards stronger mutual understanding. This creates better interpersonal relationships, makes you a safe space for truth to thrive, and empowers you and the people around you to co-create real solutions.
On the other hand, if your intention is to avoid, shut things down, protect yourself, put people in their place, be right, or even keep the peace… that only contributes to the belief that truth is unwelcome.
Be clear on what ISN’T your responsibility.
People can have all kinds of reactions to truth depending on their own inner experience. That. Is. Not. Your. Responsibility.
You are only responsible for your intentions and how you show up. You cannot hold space for anyone else’s truth if you allow your own truth to be silenced by someone else’s reaction.
Getting clear on what isn’t your responsibility serves 2 goals: maintaining your own energy reserves by keeping your focus only on what you truly can control, and setting an example for the people you lead that it’s ok to be in disagreement or even conflict. Your truth can still hold firm and you can still show up with respect.
Don’t take anything personally… unless it is personal.
When you react strongly to someone else’s truth (or even their difficult behaviour), it’s usually because you’re taking it personally. It has triggered something inside you – some unhealed wound or something that needs to grow.
Taking things personally leads to the kind of behaviour that cultivates environments of fear and unease. But, if you can rise above that level, you can create something much better.
When you notice yourself feeling triggered, pause. Whatever the other person has said or done is about them; it isn’t personal. What comes up for you in response IS personal, but it’s your wound to heal or growth to explore, not their responsibility.
There’s an amazing TEDx Talk here from a professional speaker who embarked on a pretty unique journey to learn how not to take things personally. His insight and a very cool exercise in self reflection will help you understand how empowering it is for anyone – and especially leaders – to do this work.
Mistakes can make people feel incompetent and/or fear that others will see them as incompetent. That’s a strong driving force for hiding mistakes, deflecting blame, or never taking a risk. And that stalls progress.
The thing is, mistakes aren’t failures. They’re stepping stones and learning opportunities. They are the only path to growth, both at the personal and organizational level. But only if people feel safe enough to see them that way. There’s a fantastic interview here with CEO, Mark Nikolich, about a $2 million mistake that was… actually ok. It was worked into the company’s planned delegation strategy aimed at empowering employees to stretch themselves and learn by doing.
Of course, not every organization has $2 million to spare. But everyone has something to spare and this is an area where you can actually build truth into corporate policy. Find your areas of stretch – areas where risks can be taken – and let people have free rein. Let them make mistakes and celebrate those mistakes. We know that children build confidence and resilience by being allowed to struggle a reasonable amount. That doesn’t end in childhood. We can all become better through struggle IF that struggle is reasonable (i.e. we aren’t just set up to fail) and we have leadership nearby to coach us and hold safe space for missteps.
And once again, it starts with you. Be open about your mistakes. Speak truthfully about trying something new: “I feel confident about this decision, but the truth is, I can’t know how it will turn out. This is new for me and I’m excited and apprehensive about how it will turn out.”
Define your “why”.
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” I love the way Simon Sinek repeats that mantra again and again in this talk.
As Sinek describes, there’s something called the “golden circle” of the what, how and why, with why at the center, moving out towards what. Most organizations put the what out front. But some of the most successful organizations start with the why. Those are the organizations that people follow with loyalty and devotion.
The same is true in leadership. Your personal “why” is unique to you and it is the heart of your truth at work. You really need to do the work to understand your why because people can sense authenticity. Even if they can’t put it into words, they feel it when someone is authentic and they naturally want to follow that.
Dig deep. Ask yourself, “Why does truth matter to me in this environment? Why do I want to create a culture of truth? Why am I doing what I’m doing?” Start there before moving to your how and your what, and lead from your why.
Think safety at all stages.
An organization has to feel safe for people to truly bring their best to the table. And I’m not talking about physical safety. I’m talking about psychological and emotional safety.
If people fear the consequences of their truth, that isn’t a safe environment and people cannot fully engage with it. You can put any other engagement plan into practice, but if the safety isn’t there, it simply will not work.
And here’s another key truth: you don’t create a safe space by saying, “This is a safe space.” You create it by being a safe space.
You need to show – at all times and through direct action – that you are a safe space for truth. This is why you first need to lead yourself. You need to be in a mindset that empowers conscious response over knee-jerk reactions. You have to be in control of your triggers. You have to understand that nothing is personal (and where it is, you’ve done the work). You have to be open about your imperfections so that no one feels intimidated by your perceived perfection.
There’s yet another amazing talk from Simon Sinek here about why safety matters so much in leadership. Truth is powerful… and it is vulnerable. It needs safe space to thrive.
Set clear boundaries.
Boundaries are not just about keeping things out. They’re about creating space for positive things to come in.
In terms of fostering truth in the workplace, you need to set boundaries around whatever is impeding truth. That could mean refusing to engage in gossip or negative talk, developing skills to guide conversations towards progress when they move off track, or initiating honest conversations instead of allowing conflict to fester.
Get clear on where boundaries are needed in order to protect truth and to open doorways for more truth to enter safely and confidently.
Be aware of your own assumptions.
In part 2 of this series, I explored how mental models can be a tool in creating space and safety for truth, empowering greater co-creation and problem solving skills.
However, understanding your mental models can also be a powerful tool in non-conflict times. The mental models worksheet I shared in the linked post above gives you space to explore your own perspective and that of the other side, but when there is no “other side” in question, you can simply use the first part of the sheet to build insight into your own inner experience.
When you break down your truth into the 5 categories – facts, thinking, feeling, beliefs & expectations, and values – you get a clear picture of where your experience of truth is coming from, empowering you to open up to truth coming from others.
Often, we can get really hung up on truth being THE truth when really it’s our experience of truth. There are things that are true for us that may not be true for others, and that’s ok. When you lack full clarity, you can be more easily triggered because your inner “truth detector” senses something is untrue and jumps in defense mode. But, when you do have clarity, you can hear someone else’s truth and say to yourself, “Ok, what’s true for me and true for them seem to be in conflict and we can explore that with curiosity.” That’s where leadership happens.
The best leaders approach leadership from a coaching mindset meaning, you see your role as recognizing and encouraging the unique strengths in others. You notice when people are struggling and are by their side to help them grow. You see their potential and open up opportunities for them. And when they fall, you guide them to get back up and create a better way of doing things.
A coaching approach to leadership empowers truth every step of the way by using truth to lift people up. To be able to do this, you may need to get some coaching for yourself. In fact, your whole leadership team would likely benefit from coaching. Coaching not only empowers you in many ways, but also gives you a frontrow view of the experience you want to create for the people you lead.
Look into leadership coaching services available to you and don’t hesitate to shop around. A coaching partnership must feel right to you and must feel aligned with what you want to create and why you want to create it.
The most inspiring and impactful leaders throughout history have all embraced truth – their own truth and truth in others. Truth empowers real progress to happen. It brings people together and gets them engaged around a common purpose.
Truth will always matter, but we have to be willing to be different, to be disruptive, even to be “difficult” (at least to those who don’t want truth to thrive) in order to bring our own truth into the light and be a safe space for others.
If you would like help connecting with your truth and cultivating a culture of truth around you, I invite you to connect with me.