Honesty in Leadership

Over the course of our lifetime, we have seen the public trust in leaders, both political and business, decline. When George W. Bush was president he decried the lack of honesty in leadership for corporate America after the financial scandals at World Com and Enron.

Recently, we have heard how the Bo Xilai scandal reveals a culture of deceit on the other side of the world.

What are the motives for this apparent increase in dishonesty? More wealth. More power. More influence. However, these gains are not taken from an endless reserve. A corporate leader that enriches himself in a dishonest manner takes his wealth from others. The public and the employees are both aware of this. The harm that results from the theft of power or influence may not be so evident.

The Cost of Dishonesty

When the advantages of power and influence are gained by deception, those individuals who are more deserving fail to achieve a higher position. In that position, they would likely have been beneficial to their group. Of course, one of the greatest costs of dishonest gains is the resulting apathy, disengagement, and lower productivity of the people who realize that integrity and effort are not the way to get ahead.

Dishonest leaders usually don’t keep their positions indefinitely. However, that brings up the question about honesty in leadership at hand:

How do you deal with moving into a leadership position in a company culture where dishonesty has been the rule, rather than the exception?

Do Not Expect Employees to Take You At Your Word

In a workplace where a guarantee means nothing, the burden will be on you to make what you say actually occur. As much as you want the group to know that you will operate in an above-board manner, your promises will not have much effect. People will be looking at your actions instead. Lead with them.

Avoid Taking Sides on the Guilt of the Previous Leadership

Although you have inherited problems created in the past, you most likely will not have the power to pardon or punish past leaders. Even with this power, there is no point in voicing your opinion about past leaders and there is much to be lost if you do so.

You may recall that one of Gerald Ford’s most controversial and confidence-damaging actions as president was to pardon Richard Nixon after his resignation from office. Do not try to deal with the past. Focus on the priorities at hand and what needs to be changed now.

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Expect to Deal with a Rumor Mill

Employees need to know what is happening in the workplace and when management cannot be trusted to tell the truth, they develop other routes to glean information. The first step in diffusing troublesome rumors is to set up open lines of communication. Let employees know when and how they can converse with you.

Make sure you document your own major communications. Some employees will continue to use unofficial channels to spread misinformation to their own advantage, so prepare to speak to these people individually and let them know that this is unacceptable.

Learn to Not Take Your Group’s Frustration Personally

Employees who suffered from a previous leader’s dishonesty are bound to have some degree of residual anger, while others who were favored by prior management will be dissatisfied with their loss of privileges. To have any degree of honesty in communication, you must let employees tell you how they feel, without taking everything on yourself as a problem for which you are responsible.

Temper Honesty with Consideration

Often, company culture emphasizes success over honesty. As a result, employees learn to use deceit to hide failure. Let your group know that failure is not the end, but rather the starting point for gaining more knowledge in their area. Encourage them to keep you posted on difficulties and how they are working through them. Be constructive when correcting wrong actions. Also, let people know that confidential information concerning problems will be kept confidential –as long as there is no ethical conflict – until they are ready to move forward.

Building an honest rapport will take time and effort, but dealing with the fallout of dishonesty is even more difficult. You will have to lead by example to create a business environment where honesty in leadership is not only appreciated, but an essential part of the culture.

How Do You Rebuild Honesty in Leadership?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Kathleen Listman
Kathleen Listman is an instructional designer and training consultant with a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction and over 15 years’ experience in researching, designing, developing and implementing instruction. She has created instructor-led courses, computer-based instruction and e-learning in multiple fields including aviation, manufacturing, medical devices, property accounting, telecommunications and retail sales.

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