“Leave nothing unsaid” may seem an odd piece of advice for a leadership and management column. In today’s media rich world – where words can be quickly immortalized and just as quickly regretted – the fear to keep silent and reserved may be high.
Sage voices of the past have often suggested discretion and wisdom over hasty expression, such as this from Benjamin Franklin: “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
I would not disagree with such wisdom. Certainly, my own reputation has likely been preserved by practicing such wise advice at just the right moments.
My suggestion that we as organizational leaders reconsider our practice, however, stems from an observation regarding our remarkable habit as a business-driven society that would suggest we have leaned heavily toward silence and the withholding of facts, issues and complexities for the sake of “conflict avoidance.” Such acts toward self-preservation, for that is what they are, are sometimes carried too far and, more to the point, at the expense of teamwork and trust among colleagues.
One increasingly prominent practice is that of leadership withholding information from staff so as to avoid “complications,” such as breach of confidentiality, disagreement, dissention and other forms of workplace chaos and confusion. What such leaders don’t realize is such “conflict avoidance” is not so much an avoidance, but a delay of inevitable escalation of conflict later on.
A slight erosion of trust or breach of promised transparency may provide an immediate benefit to you as a leader, but it also provides for a lasting decay in leadership, team harmony and trust.
Trust, once lost, is lost forever. Let’s not, therefore, leave too much unsaid.
Trust and its benefits stem from a willingness to address matters head-on, to share reality in an open setting and raise critical matter for discussion quickly, to tackle problems early and to share new information with the understanding: “I’m trusting you with this because we are a team and because I want you to continue to trust me in return.”
Of course, there is a necessary acceptance of vulnerability that makes such trust possible. And by vulnerability, I do not mean laying out all of one’s weaknesses, fears, doubts and imperfections on the conference room table for all to see, but a resilient vulnerability that suggests one’s recognition of strength in unity and a commitment to the organizational vision and mission.
But what about all that sage advice on discretion? Leaving nothing unsaid requires much the same forethought, consideration and discretion they suggest, but with a self-awareness sufficient to ask oneself: Am I choosing to withhold information for their sake, or mine? Will my actions sustain or erode the trust placed in me by my team?
An honest assessment of motive will often help leaders recognize that sometimes our desire to withhold or delay difficult conversations is rooted not so much in protecting the organization as it is in protecting ourselves. Our inability to trust others feeds such self-preservation, which, when recognized, has much more to tell us about the state of trust within.
Leaders were not hired to preserve their individual effectiveness as leaders, but to ensure the growth and resilience of the team and the organization it serves. And, when considered in the right light, leaders will soon find that a preservation of the team and organization, through the practice of shared trust and a transparent honesty, will almost always lend causality toward preservation of the leader.
Such an expression of trust by leaders toward their team, when done right, will likely be reciprocated in positive and lasting ways.