The Perks and Pitfalls of Authenticity in a Trust Recession
This might surprise people, but before I took over as CEO of the company I’d cofounded, I first wrote out a list of reasons I shouldn’t do it.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an incredible honor to be asked, but I was aware that society’s trust in leaders has been nearing a crisis point. People’s opinions of government, media and business are rooted in distrust until they can be convinced otherwise. This has hit the tech sector especially hard, where chief executives are often seen as being out of touch and lacking transparency.
Simply put, I didn’t want to become someone who couldn’t be trusted.
In the end, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I took it. Since then, I’ve learned two things: In this trust recession, it’s more important than ever for leaders to lean into authenticity, while also understanding the pitfalls of blatant honesty.
Why the Lack of Trust?
Trust in corporate governance has always been a bit rocky, but it’s taken some interesting turns in recent years. As people’s faith in government went down, their trust in business went up. That’s not to say we’re on good footing—about 40 percent of people say businesses aren’t trustworthy, and many more don’t believe businesses are living up to their social responsibilities.
Bridging the gap between employee and employer is a big part of building back this larger societal trust. Unfortunately, a big hurdle emerged during the pandemic—we have a hard time relating to someone we can’t see. Competence and integrity are the main ingredients for building trust, and many workers’ ability to gauge them has been compromised in a remote or hybrid working world. When you have less face-to-face time with someone, you have less insight into their character.
Even before the pandemic, workers struggled to trust absent bosses who weren’t communicating regularly. In 2019, Gallup found only 20 percent of U.S. workers said they’d had a meaningful conversation with their boss in the last six months. Study after study shows it has only grown worse as the pandemic wears on. People’s nerves are frayed and they’re looking to their leaders for direction, but only 40 percent of employees report they’re well-informed about their company’s flight path.
Show Your Human Side
When I set out on this new journey two months into the pandemic, I wanted to keep people informed as much as possible.
The first thing I wanted to do was improve the way we communicate. I’m a big believer in having a conversation when I need clarity. Just ask my kids: I respond to their text messages by giving them a call. I wanted to incorporate these one-on-one chats at work, too. It shows a deeper level of care, but it’s also an efficient way of clearing up confusion—especially for people who speak English as a second language, like myself. Every written word can be taken out of context, each punctuation mark interpreted as something other than how it was intended. Taking time to actually speak to people has helped them understand who I am and what I’m trying to say.
The next mission was to be open in my communication—and not hide behind corporate speak or vague niceties. I became CEO two months into a global pandemic, and instead of donning rose-colored glasses, I wanted to be real with my team and let them know why we were shifting course to weather the storm. Some leaders might be wary of showing their cards, but I’ve learned it’s in everyone’s best interest to lay them on the table.
These efforts can go a long way to not only show openness, but also to improve outcomes. Research shows trust is a powerful boost to workers’ performance. Employees at high-trust organizations are 76 percent more engaged and 50 percent more productive. They’re more loyal, feel closer to their colleagues and are better aligned with their company’s purpose.
Knowing When to Rein It In
Ann Fudge, a groundbreaking leader in her own right, once said: “Authenticity and knowing who you are is fundamental to being an effective and long-standing leader.” I agree, but I also think it’s important to know who you aren’t.
The flipside of bringing your true self to work every day is that sometimes people need a different version of you—not a fake persona, but an acknowledgment of your shortcomings and an honest adjustment to those traits.
I’ve always been a blunt person. I’m a software engineer by trade; we deal in true and false, ones and zeroes. There’s less room for interpretation and more acceptance for calling something exactly as you see it. There are times when that straightforward approach is needed as CEO, but I’ve also been called out on it.
I actually see this as a benefit of being genuine, and not a drawback. Being real with people makes them more comfortable being real with you. Too many leaders build themselves into echo chambers where no one ever tells them the feedback they desperately need to hear. It’s important to have your thinking challenged regularly. That’s how you learn.
Chief among the lessons I’ve learned since taking over is that business doesn’t happen without people. It’s on leaders to ask themselves whether they’re willing to address the trust recession by ditching the CEO persona to relate to their workforce authentically. Let’s be honest: You’ll never be true to your company goals if you can’t be true to yourself.