Five Toxic Traits that Block Transparency

By Chris Bachinski written about 9 months ago

The closely-related concepts of transparency and vulnerability seem to garner a great deal of attention in the business world lately. Business Insider recently told the story Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. Mr. Dalio prides himself on building a culture of radical transparency. One way the business lives this out is by videotaping every meeting and making the footage available for all employees to watch. They’ve even gone so far as to make office gossip a fireable offense, forcing team members to have difficult (but honest) conversations.

Consider your own company and personal leadership. Are you this radically transparent and vulnerable? Is it even worth it?

In her well-known TED Talk, Brené Brown speaks about the power of vulnerability and suggests that although it is risky, opening ourselves up and being vulnerable is not only personally beneficial, it also allows us to truly listen and empathize with others – a valuable ability for leaders.

So is it worth it? My short answer is “yes” – in a utopic world. Sadly we all work in a business world that is far from perfect. In our organization, we preach the importance of transparency, but despite our best intentions there can still be big challenges.

What are some of the challenges for leaders in being transparent and vulnerable? How do you overcome them? Beware of these five toxic traits that can crop up. Check yourself. Check your team. 

1. Egos

It takes tremendous strength to lead a group or an entire organization. And while confidence and a certain degree of self-assuredness are required, success can quickly go to our heads. Ego is often the partner of success. We forget about the person who worked alongside us, and everything begins to be about us. We become closed off to ideas and hostile toward criticism. Soon our way is the only way. We use to tell our employees to “do the right thing,” but now the unspoken caveat is “…as long as it doesn’t go against what I want.” We forget that humility is what provided our strength in the first place.

Ego destroys vulnerability. People no longer feel safe being transparent around us. Team members can become more concerned about pleasing the leader and stroking his ego than doing what will move the organization forward. And an unchecked ego can lead to uncontrolled emotion.

2. Uncontrolled Emotions

Our emotions play a big part in who we are. I joke that I don’t have feelings and I am all logic. As much as I try to operate with data and logic first, emotions do come into play – they have to. Emotions help motivate us and the people around us. But there can be a shadow side. We all know of visionary leaders who often allow themselves to be carried away by heated emotions.

Passion can be inspirational, but that flame can quickly ignite to anger, destroying the trust we’ve built up. Without trust, transparency cannot exist. Without trust, stories take seed, often fueled by emotion. 

3. Stories

Humans are natural storytellers, and our minds are quick to jump to conclusions about a person’s intent. We interpret actions and judge motives. In the absence of trust, we create these stories. And instead of having vulnerable, uncomfortable conversations, we search for allies. As leaders, once a story gets in our heads we have a hard time dismissing it. Stories become beliefs that start to guide our perception of everything our employees do. Every action seems to prove our story.

We start to question the motives of the very people we used to trust. Once we do that, transparency is lost for both parties. Communication shuts down. Our employee begins to think, “Why should I try being transparent if my leader already has a story in his head about me?” Stories create personal agendas. And agendas lead to silos in our organizations

4. Agendas

When transparency ends, personal agendas creep in. At their worst, these create back channels, shadow systems and water cooler strategy – and healthy organizational culture erodes. Employees feel the need to protect themselves, creating their own agendas to deal with our stories, emotions and egos. Agendas can be like armor, blocking us from being vulnerable and encouraging mistrust. When we operate with a personal agenda, we’re no longer aligned with the purpose of the organization and instead begin to manipulate the facts in order to confirm our own beliefs, serving our own interests first. A senior leader with an agenda soon becomes inconsistent.

 5. Inconsistency

Our people need to know we are consistent in our leadership – that they can rely on us to do what we say, that our words are more than hot air. When we are constantly changing our style, the rules, policies, goals, expectations or introducing new “flavors of the month,” our people get frustrated. What’s more, they begin to question our transparency. Can they trust what we’re saying? Are we really providing an honest and transparent response? Or are we just saying what needs to be said in the moment, reacting to or diffusing a situation? Consistency is a cornerstone to strong leadership. Consistency doesn’t mean we never change – it means we are intentional.

So what can we do about it?

We all have past experiences, good and bad, that have influenced us. Our previous roles, employers, history and inborn traits shape how we operate. To ensure we are the leaders we want to be – not just who we happen to be – requires authenticity and intentionality.

Any leader can exhibit these toxic traits at one point or another. What defines a great leader is the ability to identify when it is happening and to take action. For me, this means referring to my Leadership Agenda, a written declaration of who I am and who I aspire to be as a leader. Writing your Leadership Agenda helps you become intentional – living it out makes you authentic.

Learn more about a Leadership Agenda

If you are working for someone with these traits, learn from them and move on. As the saying goes: “People don’t quit companies – they quit leaders.” Take what you’ve learned, create your own Leadership Agenda and live it out. There is a shortage of strong leadership, and organizations everywhere are in need of vulnerable and radically transparent leaders.

In each month’s Think to Speak article, veteran senior executive Chris Bachinski explores some of the challenges facing today’s leaders. His well-considered insights into corporate culture and management best practices are grounded in experience and a unique back-of-the-room leadership perspective.