be frank: it builds trust

By martha duesterhoft

Last week I witnessed something in the boardroom of one of my clients that I’d only seen with actors following a script on TV or in the movies: A genuinely honest dialogue among a senior leadership team.

The conversation was about owning operational and communication issues that have negatively impacted their organization’s culture. I watched it unfold in amazement and it was one of the most productive meetings in which I’ve participated.

I commend the first team member to get the elephant in the room, on the table. She clearly acknowledged her role in creating some of the organization’s dysfunction and exhibited a sense of remorse.  

Candor is the first step in the recovery process

Once it was said out loud, others in the room agreed and as they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in recovery. Each person then spoke candidly about how their own behavior and that of others within the room where impacting their teams directly. While the language was a bit raw, it was done in a respectful manner.

This type of candor results in more expedient way to get things moving in the right direction. We waste so much time talking around the issue. Then begins the “meeting after the meeting” cycle where a couple of people come together to say what was really on their mind, but not in front of the entire group so the right people are not in the room.

Forthright conversations like I experienced don’t just happen. There has to be the right environment and trust among the participants.

Dr. Duane C. Tway, Jr., published his 1993 dissertation, A Construct of Trust, and defined trust as, “the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something.” When it comes to trust in communication, the degree of trust has a huge impact on what is said and how it’s said. Having trust enables sharing information, providing constructive feedback and speaking with good purpose about people.

Building trust among a team

It was obvious that this senior team does have that trust with one another. Yes, if this conversation had happened months ago, they might have avoided some of the issues they are now facing.

Regardless of the timing, the important thing is that the discussion did happen and it was was really refreshing to observe a team of leaders communicate honestly and professionally.

So what is the trust level among your co-workers? Are you doing things to build trust?

I’ve found the more you can have frank discussions, with the right intent, with the relevant people, trust is built. Talking about someone without their presence in the room will destroy trust not only with the person you’re talking about, but with those you’ve talked to!

The people in the room now know that if you’ll talk about someone else behind their back, you could just as easily talk about them behind their back.

Be honest. Be vulnerable. Be real.

You’ll get more done in an hour meeting than you ever imagined! Trust me!


This post was originally published on PeopleResults

Categories: Insights, People Who Achieve


Well put, it is about time people begin to be honest. Too many people care only for themselves and will throw others under the bus just to step on them to reach another rung on the ladder. Sad to say sometimes the truth is the harsh reality. Own it if that is the case and move on. Honesty is still the best policy!

Monday, September 23rd, 2013 11:13 pm GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
Donald W. Thompson

Try not to fall in love with your own voice. Listening is a much more effective ally in participating in discussions, panels or even private consultations. Careful analysis of what one is saying and the contect of same will often give you a “leg up” in your responses and statements.

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 07:13 am GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
rick maurer

Martha – Getting to see open conversation among a senior team is a lot like spotting a snow leopard. You don’t expect to ever get to see one, but thrilling when you do. Glad you got to witness this exchange and then share what you learned with us. Thanks.

I recall working with a senior IT team that was masterful at looking like they were talking to each other. I called them on it, and told them about Chris Argyris’ notion of undiscussibles on teams. I explained his elegant exercise which invited people to identify privately all the things they had been thinking in that meeting but not saying out loud.

I didn’t even go so far as to suggest that this group try that exercise, but a team member spoke up and said, “Here is what I see going on. . .” and that broke the logjam.

Funny even a tiny bit of structure like the Argyris exercise can provide sufficient security so that people can speak up.


Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 07:23 am GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
Ray Tuller III

I don’t understand why you are so surprised that candor works. There was a time when you where encouraged to say what you think and stand up and be an individual. If the company was not in the excellence mode it was doing something wrong and all of it’s employees were focused upon being number one. When the concept of politically correct came along we ceased excellence and worried more about feelings. We sidelined individuality for being followers and we now wonder why we are not the leading economy in the world. Contrarians lead to change and they have to have an environment that supports people and their idiosyncrasies. Companies that worry about feelings are going nowhere and misfocused in this competitive world. Best wins and number two is not a winner. We all can’t have number one trophies so get over the feelings being hurt. Time to recognize reality. Individuality and creativity lead to innovation and market share increases. Let’s go back and be ourselves again. Celebrate the sanctity of speaking up.

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 10:14 am GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
john challinor

was this the greenvale board so whats new

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 03:46 am GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
Jesse Hayes

This is an excellent article. I used this technique all of my professional career. I was very fortunate to develop trust with employees, physicians and my peers to lead the operations of medical facilities successfully without a graduate degree. I owe it all to the people who saw what I was trying to do and gave me the help I needed to get the job done. As my career moved forward and eventually came to an end I found it increasingly difficult to relate effectively with the professionals that I had relied to before. I am now retired to can only look back and say “It was a hell of a ride”, and I am thankful that I had the guts to say what needed to be said. Jesse

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 06:20 am GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
Steve Hearsum

Excellent post. One caveat: honesty is great, as is speaking ‘the truth’. And that begs the question: what is ‘truth’? This is not a call for fluffiness or vagueness, or less candor, rather a recognition that dogmatically speaking your mind without being open to the possibility that things are not exactly how you think/believe they are, is potentially just as damaging, albeit in a different way, as not speaking out.

So straight conversations, often the hallmark of high performing teams in my experience, tends to be coupled with humility. In some contexts e.g. nursing/healthcare, a dose of compassion with the directness kinda helps as well, for self and others.

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 06:42 am GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
Brett Stewart

It’s great to see honesty and integrity and how far it gets one.

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 01:00 pm GMT -7   |   Reply   |  

In work and in life, I’ve never been one to “beat around the bush”. People often say that they tried to “drop hints” about how they felt, but I tend to be oblivious to hints. The truth does hurt sometimes, but I respect anyone who professionally tells me if I have done something wrong. That gives me the opportunity to apologize and correct the behavior, which is much more helpful for the team than the other person silently fuming while I continue to repeat the offending behavior, not knowing it is a problem. However, some people are “too nice” to tell the truth, while others “can’t handle the truth”. I live in the southeast (US), and it’s a very common practice here for people to use “southern hospitality”, smile, and act like everything is fine and dandy when it isn’t. I ask people directly if I’ve offended them in any way, they smile, and say, “Of course not”, then I find out from someone else that what I said was misinterpreted, but they were taught that it is bad manners to show your true feelings. When I ask to have an open forum with everyone involved in a miscommunication, I’ve been told that it would be better for people to talk individually to each other, which only leads to more misunderstanding. My honesty tends to set me apart as “abnormal”, yet when I ask for more specifics, people look like a deer caught in the headlights. Honesty is the most refreshing quality, partly because it seems to be so rare nowadays.

Friday, October 4th, 2013 01:04 pm GMT -7   |   Reply   |  
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By martha duesterhoft

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. You can contact her at

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