Rules Aren’t Norms (On Better Meeting Hygiene)

Meeting Room by Nan Palmero nanpalmero 14187926777 EDIT

All behavior is adaptive in some way, and organizational cultures are merely manifestations of the cumulative adaptations made by every individual. [1]

1. Rules vs. norms

You’re a senior leader who meets regularly with a team of employees. A typical configuration in my coaching practice is a CEO who sits down with the 5 to 7 members of their executive team every week. Your team meetings are fine, but they could be much more meaningful and productive, and on occasion they’re draining or even demoralizing. This is an ongoing theme in my work with clients, and I think of it as a function of “meeting hygiene”–the ways of interacting that characterize a particular group when they sit down to work together on a consistent basis.

You’ve probably worked as a group to identify some “ground rules” to improve the quality of your meetings–that’s a common exercise and one I’ve conducted myself. [2] But despite these efforts, your meetings haven’t really improved. One reason why is the difference between “rules”–which are what we intend to do, or what we’re supposed to do, and “norms,” which are what we actually do. Richard McAdams of the University of Chicago Law School provides a useful definition of the latter:

[Norms are] informal social regularities that individuals feel obligated to follow because of an internalized sense of duty, because of a fear of external non-legal sanctions, or both. [3]

Economists Uri Gneezy, Andreas Liebbrant and John List offer another:

Norms are patterns of behavior that are based on shared beliefs about how individual group members should behave in a given situation. They are enforced by internal and external sanctions, such as shame or punishment, internalized through social learning and socialization, and may lead to an enduring change in individuals’ motivations, such as their propensity to act pro-socially. [4]

To repeat: Norms are informal social regularities that individuals feel obligated to follow, and patterns of behavior based on shared beliefs about how individuals should behave.

Rules and norms are by no means mutually exclusive, and their influence on our behavior often overlaps. But they are distinct forms of social governance, and if you’re trying to improve the quality of your meetings in a typical organization, it’s important to recognize that rules on their own are often fairly weak, while norms are much more powerful–and often exert significant influence in the absence of any formal rules, for better and for worse.

The problem is that our efforts to influence behavior in organizational life generally involve new or improved rules. And while exercises to create or clarify a set of rules for meetings are well-meaning, these efforts are often futile because in many organizational settings we don’t feel obligated to follow rules, nor are they based on a set of shared beliefs.

We choose to follow rules in organizational life most of the time, but we break them with impunity on a regular basis. Rules rarely generate an internalized sense of duty, and few organizational cultures have the ability to impose sanctions on rule-breakers without provoking a backlash. And rules are often simply imposed from above–they reflect the shared beliefs of the rule-makers, but not of those who are supposed to follow them. Norms are very different. When we violate a norm, we feel that we’ve failed to uphold an important duty, or we fear the sanctions that will result, or both.

2. Where do norms come from?

We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind.

~William James, The Principles of Psychology [5]

Human beings are deeply social creatures, and UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman cites a hypothesis that the evolutionary advantage conferred on humans by our larger brains derives not from our enhanced abilities as individual problem-solvers, but from our skill at connecting and cooperating with others, which enables us to work together in much larger groups than other primates. Lieberman notes that this social skill enabled our distant ancestors to deal with predators and other threats more successfully, but it also came at a cost:

The downside of larger groups is that there is increased competition for food and mating partners within the group. If you are on your own and you manage to find food, it’s yours. The larger your group, the more likely it is that one of the others in your group will try to poach it. Primates with strong social skills can limit this downside by forming alliances and friendships with others in the group…

While there is tremendous upside to being part of a group, that is true only if you know how to play the odds and form the right coalitions to avoid the downsides of group living. It requires an expansive capacity for social knowledge. [6]

So we evolved to be keenly aware of our relative social status and our standing in the group, and it is in this context that early humans faced the challenge of how to solve what legal scholar McAdams calls “collective action problems [which] arise when there is a disparity between the individual behavior that maximizes the welfare of the group and the behavior that maximizes the welfare of an individual in the group.” [7]

Today we solve many such collective action problems through the law–but lacking access to a legal system and the authority of the state, our distant ancestors developed something equally powerful (and much less cumbersome) that continues to govern our social life today: norms.

Early research on norms was done by sociologists and anthropologists, and while this work established an essential foundation for our understanding of the concept, in recent decades legal scholars and economists (as noted above) have added further insights. [8] Richard McAdams has developed a theory I find compelling in light of Lieberman’s ideas about the importance of our social orientation: Norms emerge from our need for the esteem of our peers and the anxiety that results when such esteem is withheld. McAdams writes:

The initial force behind norm creation is the desire individuals have for respect or prestige, that is, for the relative esteem of others. Withholding esteem is, under certain conditions, a costless means of inflicting costs on others. These costs are often extremely small… But…dynamic forces can cause the weak desire for esteem to produce powerful norms, sometimes because individuals struggle to avoid deviance, sometimes because they compete to be heroic. [9]

Note that withholding esteem is a “low-cost” means of sanctioning those who violate a norm–this makes it easy for the group to punish violators without imposing a burden on those who observe violations and take action in response. Also, the desire for mutual esteem does not need to be particularly strong–it merely needs to cross some minimal threshold, above which we feel its loss should it be withheld.

William James, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, summarizes these ideas concisely: We have an innate propensity to get noticed favorably by our kind.

3. How do we foster productive norms?

Bad feedback [has] more impact than good…and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones.

~Roy Baumeister et al. [10]

While McAdams’ “esteem theory” proposes that the power of norms comes from our desire for the regard of our peers as well as fear of its loss, further research suggests that the latter factor is significantly more influential. This is consistent with a well-established psychological principle that bad experiences register more strongly than good ones–while we will make an effort to win our peers’ esteem, we’ll work even harder to avoid its withdrawal.

Biologist Sergey Gavrilets of the University of Tennessee and environmental scientist Peter Richerson of UC Davis conducted joint research that offers more specific insights into this process: “Norm internalization evolves much more easily and has much larger effects on behavior if groups promote peer punishment of free riders.” [11]

With this we can identify the necessary conditions in a group for the establishment of a productive norm:

  • A set of shared beliefs about how individuals should behave.
  • Sufficient mutual esteem among members so that its withdrawal would be felt as a loss by any individual.
  • A willingness by members to openly acknowledge a norm violation by a peer.
  • A willingness by members to withhold esteem from a peer as a consequence of a norm violation.

In other words, a high-accountability, high-empathy culture. To be clear, this doesn’t mean an authoritarian culture in which group members are being policed by management, but one in which members hold themselves accountable because of their shared beliefs regarding productive behavior and their desire to avoid the loss of mutual esteem. [12]

As a leader, of course, you’re well aware that this may be easy to understand in theory, but it’s very difficult to put into practice. Because it is so difficult, many leaders focus solely on the first condition–creating a set of shared beliefs–and ignore the other three. This results in a set of thoughtful rules, which people agree to but then break as soon as adherence to the rule would be inconvenient for them. No one acknowledges their free-riding behavior, there’s no withdrawal of esteem, and the thoughtful rules never become norms.

This is why relationship-building on a team is so important and why leaders who dismiss it as fluffy bullshit are missing a critical factor in the process of developing productive norms. It’s not about “liking each other”–it’s about the power of mutual esteem. And to be clear, sufficient mutual esteem is a necessary but insufficient condition–what’s also required is a mutual willingness to hold each other accountable, and this is the really hard work.

4. Why is this work so difficult?

Whenever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat. In order for the bypass to work, it must be covered up.

~Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses [13]

Over the course of a decade I spent more than 2,000 hours facilitating groups of MBA students at Stanford, primarily in the school’s Interpersonal Dynamics course [14], which I later taught for several years, but also in the Leadership Fellows Program, which I helped to launch in 2007. During this same period of time, before focusing my practice on coaching individual clients I consulted to leadership teams that were seeking to work together more effectively. A regularly occurring activity in all of this work was the identification of existing group norms and interventions to encourage more productive behavior. 

This took place through a number of different processes, from highly-structured activities to informal conversations, but a universal response was anxiety, ranging from mild awkwardness to profound distress. As a leader who’s hoping to improve your team’s meeting hygiene, you should anticipate something similar. One of the causes of this pattern is that a candid examination of group norms causes us to acknowledge behaviors–our own and those of others–that we would rather ignore. Such open acknowledgment feels unsafe because it violates a “defense routine,” a term defined by the late Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris:

[Defense routines] are actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat. Simultaneously, they prevent people from identifying and getting rid of the causes of the potential embarrassment or threat. Organizational defensive routines are anti-learning, over-protective, and self-sealing. [15]

Defense routines are universal in organizational life, and they’re predictable and rational responses to the stress and uncertainty we face in most professional environments. Argyris notes that they “are rewarded by most organizational cultures, because the routines indicate a sense of caring and concern for people,” and “minimize the risk of harming or upsetting people.” [16]

The dilemma you face as a leader seeking to foster a culture of productive norms is that, first, any currently existing dysfunctional norms must be openly acknowledged, and then violations of desired norms must be recognized and sanctioned by peers. All of these efforts are likely to trigger feelings of embarrassment and threat (or other vulnerable emotions), thus running headlong into the defense routines that have been carefully crafted with the best of intentions to minimize the risk of harm or upset.

In fact, most of your team’s current dysfunctional norms are defense routines–strategies to bypass embarrassment or threat–and these social dynamics function only when the bypass is covered up. So uncovering them compels us to admit that we’ve been colluding in the dysfunction, and this itself can be feel embarrassing. Obviously, this is a recipe for A) continued inaction, or B) avoiding the riskier topic of norms in favor of a safe-but-futile discussion about rules.

The key to unlocking this dilemma is the establishment of sufficient psychological safety, a topic that’s been studied extensively by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. In a psychologically safe organization, Edmondson notes:

Individuals feel they can speak up, express their concerns, and be heard. This is not to say that people are “nice.” A psychologically safe workplace is one where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished.

What I am advocating is candor. Being open. And sometimes that might mean being direct to a fault, knowing that you have a right and a responsibility to ask hard questions about the work: “Is this the right decision? Are we collecting the right data? Do we know the impact this might have on others?” [17]

There are a number of steps you can take as a leader to create a greater sense of safety among your team: listening, encouraging input, and responding appreciatively–especially to unwelcome news. [18] But it’s essential to also consider how your behavior as a leader might undermine these efforts by diminishing safety, triggering a threat response, or reinforcing existing defense routines. [19] As I’ve written before,

Power distorts what others choose to tell us and what we choose to hear, and the more power we have relative to someone else, the more distortion there is in the dialogue. You can and should seek to heighten your self-awareness…but you should also explicitly ask for direct feedback from others and make it safe for employees to point out how you may be making things worse. [20]

Finally, let’s return to the concepts of mutual esteem and accountability, the essential preconditions for the establishment of productive norms. These qualities in a group have the potential to be both the result of and contributors to a greater sense of psychological safety. When we respect and feel close to the people around us, and when we trust that they will tell us the truth in a direct but empathetic way, it’s a safer environment in which to deal with the feelings of vulnerability that inevitably accompany a truly candid conversation about group norms. In this context psychological safety isn’t an end in itself, but, rather, a necessary means to the desired end of a truly high-accountability, high-empathy culture. [21]

5. Questions to resolve for better meeting hygiene.

Below are a number of questions that come up regularly in my work with leaders who are striving to improve their team’s effectiveness, and each one touches on an issue that has the potential to meaningfully affect meeting hygiene. That said, it’s essential to view them in light of the concepts above.

You and your team could have a thorough discussion about each of these issues and craft a brilliant plan to cover every possible situation–and your efforts will largely be wasted in the absence of a psychologically safe environment in which members value each other’s esteem and are willing to hold each other accountable. Rules aren’t norms.

  • Why are we meeting? What happens if we don’t know the answer?
  • Who’s here? Who’s not?
  • What happens if someone who’s supposed to be here is absent?
  • What happens if someone’s here who’s not supposed to be?
  • What are our roles? Who are we to each other?
  • Where are we meeting? If we’re all in the same room, who sits where?
  • If we’re not in the same room, how are we using technology?
  • Who leads the meeting? What does “leading” mean here?
  • What’s on the agenda? Who makes that decision?
  • What level of preparation is required? What happens if someone appears to be unprepared?
  • When do we start? What happens if people are late?
  • How do we start?
  • When do we finish? What happens if we run long?
  • How much time is allotted to each topic? What happens if we run long on a given topic?
  • How do we make decisions? When do we decide how to make a given decision?
  • How do we choose what process we use to make decisions? What happens if we disagree?
  • What’s our policy regarding laptops? What’s our policy regarding phones?
  • How do we express emotion? How do we regulate emotional expression?
  • What’s our shared understanding of the answers to these questions?
  • How do we surface and resolve differences of opinion?


[1] In Defense of Normal

[2] Ground Rules for Meetings

[3] “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms,” page 340 (Richard McAdams, Michigan Law Review, 1997)

[4] Ode to the Sea: Workplace Organizations and Norms of Cooperation, page 2 (Uri Gneezy, Andreas Liebbrant and John List, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014)

[5] The Principles of Psychology, Chapter X: The Consciousness of Self, page 126 (William James, 1890)

[6] Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, pages 33-34 (Matthew Lieberman, 2013)

[7] Social Norms (Cristina Bicchieri, Ryan Muldoon, and Alessandro Sontuoso, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2018 Edition, Edward Zalta, editor)

[8] “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms,” page 344, note 25

[9] “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms,” page 342

[10] Bad Is Stronger Than Good (Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen Vohs, Review of General Psychology, 2001)

[11] “Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization,” page 6068 (Sergey Gavrilets and Peter Richerson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017)

[12] Accountability and Empathy (Are Not Mutually Exclusive)

[13] Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, page 25 (Chris Argyris, 1990)

[14] Interpersonal Dynamics

[15] Overcoming Organizational Defenses, page 25

[16] Overcoming Organizational Defenses, page 29

[17] Make Your Employees Feel Psychologically Safe (Martha Lagace interviewing Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 2018)

[18] How Fearless Organizations Succeed (Amy Edmondson, strategy+business, 2018. Excerpted from The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.)

[19] How Leaders Create Safety (and Danger)

[20] Hammering Eggs (Leadership and Problem-Solving)

[21] Accountability and Empathy (Are Not Mutually Exclusive)

For Further Reading

Checking In: Start Meetings by Listening More

Leadership, Decision-Making and Emotion Management

Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups (Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff, Harvard Business Review, 2001)

Building a Feedback-Rich Culture

Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings (Joseph Mroz, Joseph Allen, Dana Verhoeven, and Marissa Shuffler, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2018)

Photo by Nan Palmero. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Conform to the Culture Just Enough

Conformity by Carleton Thomas Anderson ctanderson 8730481504 EDIT

Leaders must conform enough if they are to make the connections necessary to deliver change. Leaders who succeed in changing organizations challenge the norms–but rarely all of them, all at once… To change an organization, the leader must first gain at least minimal acceptance as a member.

~Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones [1]

You’re in a new leadership role, you see some room for improvement, and you want to make some changes. If you’re one of my coaching clients, the title of this post will be a recurring theme in our conversations. Unless it’s a turnaround in which the intent is to radically transform a dysfunctional culture, your success will hinge on your ability to conform just enough. If you conform too much, you’ll miss opportunities to influence positive change and make a difference. And if you don’t conform enough, your efforts will be ignored or rebuffed, and eventually you’ll burn out or be rejected.

The first challenge is clarifying just what we mean by “culture”–it’s an elastic word that stretches to accommodate a wide range of concepts, especially when we’re talking about “culture fit.” Michael Watkins of the International Institute of Management Development offers a useful set of distinct but overlapping definitions:

Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations…

Culture is a process of “sense-making” in organizations [which] moves the definition of culture beyond patterns of behavior into the realm of jointly-held beliefs and interpretations about “what is…”

Culture is a carrier of meaning. Cultures provide not only a shared view of “what is” but also of “why is.” In this view, culture is about “the story” in which people in the organization are embedded, and the values and rituals that reinforce that narrative…

Culture is a social control system. Here the focus is the role of culture in promoting and reinforcing “right” thinking and behaving, and sanctioning “wrong” thinking and behaving. Key in this definition of culture is the idea of behavioral “norms” that must be upheld, and associated social sanctions that are imposed on those who don’t “stay within the lines…”

Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures. It prevents “wrong thinking” and “wrong people” from entering the organization in the first place. [2]

Note the many layers and elements here: behavior, beliefs, meaning, narrative, norms. One of your most important tasks as a new leader is to explore and understand all of these aspects of your new culture. Without this awareness it’s impossible to know when you’re conforming just enough. So what does this look like in practice? Here are four tactics:

1. Pay Attention

Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken offers some invaluable advice: “Notice everything and pay attention to things that puzzle. Pay attention to things that demand your attention and then refuse your understanding. Pay attention to the failure of attention.” [3]

As a new member many aspects of the surrounding culture will seem curious or unusual or even irrational. This is invaluable data, and it won’t be available to you indefinitely. As the culture grows familiar, it will become less visible to you–it will simply be “the way we are.” With a fresh set of eyes you’ll be able to see more clearly the behaviors, beliefs, meanings, narratives and norms that make up your new cultural landscape–but only if you’re actively looking for them.

This sounds easy but can be difficult to implement: New environments compel us to make many more decisions than usual; you’re probably feeling pressure to get up to speed quickly; and the company may not have a well-crafted onboarding plan (or any plan at all.) Time spent observing the culture can seem like a luxury when there’s a lot to do and you’re feeling depleted. So give some thought to how you might “onboard yourself,” and in that process recognize the long-term importance of investing time in these efforts. [4]

2. Ask Around

Much of this data will be tacit, undocumented, and assumed, so it won’t be sufficient to merely observe–you’ll also have to inquire. You started doing this weeks or even months ago during the hiring process, but there are limits on how much can be learned about an organization’s culture by a prospective candidate: Interviewers are highly motivated to portray the culture in the best possible light, not only to land the prospect, but also to re-affirm their continued commitment to the organization. Candidates are reluctant to ask certain questions or point out potential concerns, for fear that they’ll be deemed “not a fit.” And even in more candid conversations employees may be unable to identify aspects of their culture with much specificity because it’s become less visible to them–it’s the water in which they swim.

Presumably you learned enough about the culture to convince you to accept the opportunity, but you potentially have access to much more information now that you’re in the role–and yet you’ll surface this additional data only by engaging your new colleagues in dialogue. Your onboarding plan (whether it’s official or one you’ve constructed for yourself) should include a series of conversations with people from across the organization, and every one of those exchanges is an opportunity to learn something about the culture.

There’s a parallel with the field of ethnography, in which researchers immerse themselves in a culture in order to empathetically understand what it’s like to be a member. Drawing upon this process, McCracken reminds us to distinguish among the various “layers of knowledge” that can be unearthed through skillful conversation:

What the other person knows and can offer easily.

What the other person knows and can report with prompting.

What the other person does not know they know but can reveal with prompting.

What the other person does not know, cannot report, and cannot reveal, but the questioner can gather from one conversation.

What the other person does not know, cannot report, and cannot reveal, but the questioner can gather from multiple conversations. [5]

3. Lead with Warmth

There’s an important balance to strike in the process of conducting these conversations: It can be helpful to be perceived as “a new person eager to learn,” because many colleagues will be equally eager to educate you (in part to win you over to their way of thinking.) And it will be problematic if you’re perceived as “a nosy outsider”–that sows distrust and raises questions about your motives.

The key is to seek to build trust from the very first interaction with every one of your new colleagues. But many new leaders often try to establish themselves by demonstrating their mastery and competence–they lead with strength. Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy and her co-authors Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger have studied the value of an alternative approach–leading with warmth:

Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors. Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage…

A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence–and to lead–is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals–a nod, a smile, an open gesture–can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them. [6]

Being perceived as a warm and empathetic person is not an end in itself in a leadership role, of course. You will also surely be called upon to hold people accountable–but those are not mutually exclusive characteristics in a leader. [7]

4. Learn to Translate

The opportunities for improvement that you see in your new culture are informed by what you’ve learned from your previous cultures, and your ability to offer a broader perspective likely played a part in landing this leadership role. Perhaps your success in your last organization is what led to this new opportunity, or perhaps you’ve been exploring leadership skills and organizational culture in a training program like my MBA students at Stanford. Whatever path you’ve followed, the final step will be taking what you’ve learned and translating it to fit your new culture.

A key in this process is eliminating any terminology from your vocabulary that might be perceived by your new culture as “jargon.” The late activist Abbie Hoffman advised anyone seeking to foster change to “Be very conscious of your language”:

It cannot be stressed too strongly how much language shapes your environment… You can’t afford the luxury of being boring or of creating a language that the average person cannot understand. Avoid, for example, using initials for the full name of an agency. Even if all the people you are addressing know that EPA stands for Environmental Protection Agency…say the full name. Why? As a reminder not to slip into the language of the bureaucracy. Those in power can, but not the challengers. [8]

The equivalent of Hoffman’s bureaucratic acronyms are any catchphrases you learned in your previous cultures. They were helpful shorthand when everyone understand them, but when you take these linguistic shortcuts in your new culture you run the risk of alienating a potential ally simply because you’re not speaking their language. No matter how compelling your ideas, they must be presented in terms that align with your new culture’s native vocabulary and communication style.

A further step is distilling the conceptual lessons you’ve drawn from your previous cultures and translating those ideas into behaviors that will conform just enough to the norms of your new culture. An example that comes up frequently in my work is the role of vulnerability in organizational life, which is a hallmark of the experiential learning curriculum at Stanford. [9]. Expressions of vulnerability typically evoke empathy, so in circumstances where a greater degree of empathy would increase mutual understanding or resolve a conflict, a leader who can convey and demonstrate vulnerability will have a powerful advantage. [10]

But “vulnerability” comes in an endless number of forms, and each culture has a set of norms that define acceptable expressions of vulnerability by a leader. If you deviate too far from these norms, the culture won’t be able to accommodate your behavior–and if all you do is conform to those norms, you’ll fail to help the culture evolve and will miss opportunities to take advantage of your prior training. The key, as always, is to conform just enough.


[1] Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, pages 109-110 (Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, 2006/2015)

[2] What Is Organizational Culture? (Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review, 2013)

[3] Account planners and fearless noticing (Grant McCracken, 2007)

[4] A Checklist for Someone About to Take on a Tougher Job

[5] The Six Layers of Knowledge and Better Conversations

[6] Connect, Then Lead (Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, Harvard Business Review, 2013)

[7] Accountability and Empathy

[8] “How to Fight City Hall” (Abbie Hoffman, originally published in Parade, 1984, currently available in The Best of Abbie Hoffman, 1993)

[9] The Art of Self-Coaching, Class 7: Vulnerability

[10] Brené Brown, Vulnerability, Empathy and Leadership

For Further Reading

Two Sides of Trust

First Impressions

The Accumulation of Cultural Debt

Photo by Carleton Thomas Anderson. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

XYZ (On Team Development)


In 2013-14 I had the privilege of coaching Tere Pérez, a second-year MBA student in Stanford’s Leadership Fellows program, and she created this simple but powerful exercise to help the group of first-year students she was coaching better understand how they were working together. It’s not just for MBAs–any team could use it to explore their ongoing development:

Have each member of the team write down their answers to the following statements:

Since we started, our team has become [X].

My greatest contribution to the team has been [Y].

I’ll get more out of our time together if I [Z].

After everyone has finished taking notes, address each of the three topics as a group. Be sure to elicit input from everyone–this may require a structured process of reporting out before open discussion.

For Further Reading

Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups, (Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff, Harvard Business Review, 2001)

Huddle Up! (Building Group Cohesion)

Symptoms of Group Strength

Safety, Trust, Intimacy

Photo via the Spline Doctors.

You Can’t Steer a Parked Car

Parked Car by IwateBuddy brucewood 496159261 EDIT

I didn’t coin the title of this post, and I wish I could remember where I heard it first, because it does come up frequently in my coaching practice.

When we suspect we’re not headed in the right direction, we often slow down and lose momentum, and sometimes we stall out entirely.

But it’s very difficult–and perhaps impossible–to change direction when we’re not moving at all.

The key is to move forward judiciously and thoughtfully, and to use the resulting momentum to adjust our trajectory in the process.

What does this look like in practice?

Thanks to Ryan Caldbeck.

Photo by IwateBuddy. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

New Patterns of Power and Profit: A Strategist’s Guide to Competitive Advantage in the Age of Digital Transformation

New Patterns of Power and Profit: A Strategist’s Guide to Competitive Advantage in the Age of Digital Transformation

New Patterns of Power and Profit: A Strategist’s Guide to Competitive Advantage in the Age of Digital Transformation

How did Capital One and Uber implement nearly identical business models, focusing on customers that are most profitable to serve? Why are Google and Amazon so valuable to us? Why are Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon so difficult for competitors to displace? And why can Google charge almost anything it wants for keywords, since no form of competition will force prices down? The information-based business models of these companies, and many more, are exploiting the patterns described in this book.

This book instills pattern-based thinking that will prepare all readers for greater success in our rapidly changing world. It will help executives, regulators, investors, and concerned citizens better navigate their way through the digital transformation of everything.

Professor Clemons presents six patterns for staying competitive and achieving profitable business models. The author’sreframe-recognize-respond framework teaches readers how to transform unfamiliar problems into familiar patterns, how to determine which patterns to apply in different situations, and how to respond most effectively.
Information changes everything. This book is a guide to power and profit from understanding changes in the age of digital transformation.

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Accountability and Empathy (Are Not Mutually Exclusive)


When we’re in a leadership role or a position of authority, we’re faced with the task of both holding people accountable and empathizing with their difficulties (some of which we’ve caused), and how the members of a given group respond to this challenge defines that group’s culture. The leader is in a unique position to influence the culture, through the behaviors they model, acknowledge, ignore, reward and punish, but ultimately every member of the group has some responsibility for the culture that emerges…

So how do we get to Paradise? Obviously there’s no simple solution–but there is one easy way to guarantee failure, and that’s making the assumption that either we can hold people accountable or we can empathize with them. In part, this stems from the mistaken idea that empathy is the same thing as agreement. [1]

As a leader you’re probably facing some version of this challenge–it’s one of the most common issues I discuss with coaching clients. But based on the experience of leaders in my practice, I view the belief that we can either hold people accountable or empathize with them as a false dichotomy. That widely-held mental model of leadership presumes that accountability and empathy are endpoints along a single dimension. But an alternative model encourages us to view accountability and empathy as distinct aspects of an organization’s culture–and, by extension, of the leader’s behavior.

Before we explore the leadership practices that contribute to an optimal organizational culture, let’s consider the alternatives:


In a low-accountability, low empathy culture the emphasis is on avoiding mistakes and minimizing personal responsibility. Management cares little about employees’ needs, and employees make the minimum effort required to complete necessary work. While such profound dysfunction may be typical in any number of industries, it’s exceedingly rare among the organizations I’ve observed as a coach.

If you find yourself in a Nightmare like this, my only advice is to wake up, get out, and take your best people with you.


In a high-accountability, low-empathy culture there’s a strong emphasis on production and minimal regard for people’s needs. Rewards are allocated strictly for performance, and productivity is maximized through punishments for failure to follow clearly defined rules. This Bootcamp approach to management has been common throughout human history, and it remains the norm in many industries today.

The historical prevalence of this approach to social organization is curious in light of evidence suggesting that hundreds of thousand years ago the first human beings evolved to work together in cooperative harmony–it’s possible that this was the key factor that allowed our distant ancestors to overcome their natural disadvantages against predators and harsh environmental conditions. [2]

But it’s also plausible that our ancestors developed a cooperative approach in order to band together in the struggle against nature, and conflict with other humans was rare because the overall population was so low. Depictions of violent inter-group conflict become common in cave art beginning roughly 12,000 years ago, and perhaps this was the crisis that triggered the development of more hierarchical social structures characterized by antagonism and strife. [3]

Whatever our evolutionary heritage, most people have worked in Bootcamp organizational cultures for millennia, and this model has deeply informed our conventional ideas about leadership.


In a low-accountability, high-empathy culture meeting employees’ needs is a paramount priority, resulting in warm relationships, a comfortable, friendly atmosphere and a relatively relaxed pace. Management maximizes employees’ security and comfort in the hope that improved productivity will be the result.

This approach to management has found fertile soil in recent years, but its roots go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The inhumane working conditions that characterized the early industrial era resulted in increasingly violent labor unrest, which led to the emergence of “industrial/organizational psychology” and “labor relations.” These fields sought to rationalize management through the application of scientific and psychological principles, contributing to improvements in working conditions sought by labor advocates and progressive reformers. [4]

In some settings this movement led to an organizational culture diametrically opposed to the Bootcamp–the Daycare. And while we might associate this culture with a stereotypical 21st century startup, MIT professor Douglas McGregor was already noting the contrast between a “hard” and “soft” approach to management in 1957:

At one extreme, management can be “hard” or “strong.” The methods for directing behavior involve coercion and threat (usually disguised), close supervision, tight controls over behavior. At the other extreme, management can be “soft” or “weak.” The methods for directing behavior involve being permissive, satisfying people’s demands, achieving harmony. Then they will be tractable, accept direction. This range has been fairly completely explored during the past half century… [5]

While a Daycare culture is feasible only in organizations that rely on relatively small numbers of highly-educated knowledge workers to create large financial gains, as an executive coach working primarily with technology CEOs in San Francisco, I’ve observed many such companies over the years, and it’s a model that has come to characterize Silicon Valley. (In business school I took a class with John Morgridge, who became CEO of Cisco in 1988 when it had just 34 employees–today it has 74,000. A perk for tech company workers in the ’80s was free soda, but Morgridge was aghast when he realized that the company’s annual budget for Coca-Cola was over $1 million. If he were alive today, I can only imagine what he would think. [6])


A dilemma is that neither the Bootcamp nor the Daycare is an optimal organizational culture–they each present a particular set of challenges that can undermine productivity. Returning to McGregor’s observations:

This range [between “‘hard” and “soft” management] has been fairly completely explored during the past half century, and management has learned some things from the exploration. There are difficulties in the “hard” approach. Force breeds counterforces: restriction of output, antagonism, militant unionism, subtle but effective sabotage of management objectives. This approach is especially difficult during times of full employment.

There are also difficulties in the “soft” approach. It leads frequently to the abdication of management—-to harmony, perhaps, but to indifferent performance. People take advantage of the soft approach. They continually expect more, but they give less and less. [7]

So often leaders feel that they have to choose one approach or the other–they must either hold people accountable in a Bootcamp or empathize with them in a Daycare (and accept one or the other set of difficulties articulated by McGregor.) But this is a false dichotomy. There is a better way.


The goal is a high-accountability, high-empathy culture, in which management and employees are fully committed to the organization’s needs and to each other. A shared sense of mission, strong feelings of ownership and responsibility, and relationships built on mutual trust and respect contribute to superior organizational results.

When employees feel compelled to stay, it’s easy to run a Bootcamp–to hold people accountable without expressing empathy. And when management has sufficient resources, it’s even easier to run a Daycare–to express empathy without holding people accountable. But both of these models impose substantial costs and, for many organizations, yield sub-optimal results. The task is to hold people accountable while also empathizing with them, and while this is easy to understand, it’s hard to put into practice. This is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership–which is one reason why high-accountability, high-empathy cultures are so rare.

While you can’t mandate your organizational culture as a leader, you can shape its evolution through every interpersonal interaction and every message you deliver. Particularly if you’re a leader in a new or rapidly growing organization, your behavior sets a standard that influences how all employees interact with each other. So how do you build a high-accountability, high-empathy culture? There are three core concepts to bear in mind:

Update your models.

Accountability is not bullying.

Empathy is not agreement.

Update Your Models

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The first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models–because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does.

~Charlie Munger [8]

We navigate the world through a set of mental models–conceptual frameworks and operating theories about how things work that enable us to make sense of a given situation and behave in ways that will allow us to achieve our goals. As a leader, your mental models have undoubtedly contributed to your success, and yet, as I’ve written before,

We construct our mental models out of the meaning we extract from experience, and there’s inevitably a loss of fidelity as we focus on certain aspects of an experience (while ignoring others), interpret that data, and then conceptualize it as a general principle. And the gap that exists between our mental models and reality will continually increase over time unless we compel ourselves to test our assumptions, gather new data and update our models–which requires consistent effort. [9]

It’s essential to understand your mental models of leadership and update them on an ongoing basis to fit your present circumstances, rather than “torturing reality” to fit your models. If, like many leaders, you believe you can either hold people accountable or empathize with them, the starting point is recognizing that this is merely a model, a working theory about how to interact with your employees most effectively–and it’s one you can change.

But the work of identifying, exploring and updating your mental models won’t happen when you’re distracted by constant interruptions in a hectic office, struggling to get through an endless to-do list. Instead…

Once you’ve begun the process of updating your models of leadership to incorporate the idea that you can hold people accountable and empathize with them, it’s time to experiment with some behaviors that will allow you to put this into practice.

Accountability Is Not Bullying

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One of the reasons many leaders believe they can either hold people accountable or empathize with them is a misunderstanding of what is meant by “accountability.” We often assume it entails a combative stance in an antagonistic interaction, with the goal of enforcing compliance–but that’s not holding someone accountable, that’s bullying them. And while bullying may be tolerated in a Bootcamp, it doesn’t work in Paradise (and it will terrify people in a Daycare, resulting in you being escorted from the premises.)

Accountability certainly involves documenting commitments, clarifying expectations, monitoring progress, and rigorous candor, but none of this need feel hostile or aggressive. The key here is emotion regulation–which is very distinct from suppression. Strong emotions can easily be stirred up in an accountability conversation, but the point isn’t to pretend you’re not feeling them–this generally fails. As former coach Vickie Gray has noted, “Holding back your feelings doesn’t keep them hidden, it just makes your behavior incoherent.” [10]

Three lessons I learned from Scott Bristol, one of my mentors in Interpersonal Dynamics at Stanford [11], are critically important here:

  • Expressions of anger readily capture our attention because they signal a potential threat, but we generally turn away from others’ anger and distance ourselves from it as soon as possible to manage our distress.
  • In contrast, we turn toward most expressions of vulnerability, such as fear and hurt, which may derive from our evolutionary history of cooperation, as noted above.
  • Most expressions of anger are manifestations of a deeper (and often unexpressed) fear or hurt.

Accountability conversations become necessary when commitments are unfulfilled or expectations go unmet, and such exchanges can easily trigger strong feelings on all sides. As the leader you may well feel angry or frustrated–but note the three points above. Expressions of anger will capture your employees’ attention, but if the experience is too distressing they will seek to distance themselves from you (psychologically or literally) as soon as possible. It’s also quite possible that your frustration, even if justifiable, is a self-protective response covering up a more vulnerable set of feelings–anxiety in the face of potential failure, or disappointment at the lack of support from your team, or embarrassment at your own culpability.

The key, again, is emotion regulation: Sensing the early physiological signs of incipient emotions so that you can take action sooner. Comprehending precisely what you’re feeling and giving it an appropriate label (and recognizing the fear and hurt that may lie beneath any anger or frustration.) Expressing those vulnerable emotions in a way that fits the surrounding culture. Thoughtfully choosing your language and non-verbal forms of expression to communicate in ways that will help you achieve your goals more effectively.

And these steps will not happen by accident–they rest on a foundation of consistent personal and organizational practices: 

Finally, note that while I’m emphasizing your behavior as a leader in the process of holding employees accountable, that’s not because high-accountability cultures should be authoritarian hierarchies. Your personal behavior matters because it will be closely scrutinized and highly influential, for better and for worse. The larger goal is the establishment of a culture in which people hold themselves accountable–and that occurs under conditions of mutual empathy.

Empathy Is Not Agreement

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Just what do we mean by “empathy” in this context? The most useful definition for our purposes was developed by Theresa Wiseman, a medical professor and researcher at the University of Southampton, who was researching the topic because of its importance for nursing and medical care. Wiseman identified four defining attributes of empathy:

1. The ability to see the world as another person sees it. (“Without this, empathy cannot occur,” Wiseman wrote.)

2. The ability to understand another person’s feelings.

3. The ability to suspend judgment.

4. The ability to communicate this understanding, which is essential “if empathy is to be felt.” [12]

Why does this matter so much? What makes empathy so important in organizational life? The answer comes from the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work who has dedicated her career to the study of such topics as vulnerability, empathy, courage and shame:

If you think about connection on a continuum…anchoring [one] end of of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people… Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability. [13]

Note the significance of this “empathy-shame continuum” in a setting where you’re seeking to hold people accountable. We often associate shame with grave personal misdeeds, but it’s actually a common experience in organizational life. Even if you’re able to successfully employ the practices discussed above and hold productive accountability conversations, it’s likely that anyone who has failed to fulfill their commitments, meet expectations, or achieve their goals will feel some degree of shame. And as Brown writes elsewhere, “Shame is the fear of disconnection–it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.” [14]

When accountability conversations trigger shame–as they inevitably do, even with the best of intentions and skillful practice–the key to maintaining strong working relationships characterized by a sense of personal connection is empathy. And yet a challenge faced by so many leaders in these circumstances is that they believe empathy requires agreement. As I’ve written before,

We act as though empathizing with someone entails endorsing their perspective and their feelings, but this need not be the case. Understanding someone’s perspective and their emotions while suspending our judgments about both does not necessarily imply that we agree with that perspective or believe that the resulting emotions are justified. It simply means that we comprehend their perspective and emotions, and we are able to envision ourselves experiencing that perspective and those emotions under similar circumstances. Just as we can empathize with someone without sympathizing, we can empathize with someone while disagreeing with them and considering their perspective inaccurate and their emotions unwarranted. [15]

When we agree, empathizing is easy, but in many of the circumstances we’re discussing you and your employees will not agree–and you will need to empathize with them anyway. So if empathy is not agreement, what might it look like to put these ideas into practice? As with the process of emotion regulation discussed above, a more empathetic response will not arise spontaneously. It will grow out of a set of consistent behaviors:

  • Make a concerted effort to slow down when holding an important conversation in order to be more attuned to others’ emotions (and your own.)
  • Ask better questions in order to surface more information from your employees’ perspective.
  • Develop better listening skills and recognize that some of our habitual responses actually block empathy.
  • Create a safer environment (for others and yourself) by minimizing the risk of a threat response.

Historical Background: The Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid

The graphics above are my simplified versions of one of the most important images in the history of management theory, the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid. The original version–shown below–was published in a 1964 Harvard Business Review article [16] by psychologists Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, who had recently resigned from the University of Texas to found a consulting firm, and Louis Barnes and Larry Greiner of Harvard Business School. [17] The authors were (or would go on to become) leading figures in the worlds of industrial/organizational psychology and labor relations (later known as human relations.)

Blake, Mouton and their co-authors described the conventional approach to management as “concern for production,” the X-axis on the grid below. In contrast, drawing upon ideas emerging from industrial psychology and human relations, they described an alternative approach as “concern for people,” the Y-axis below:


The original grid employs a 1-to-9 scale along each axis, as Blake, Mouton and their co-authors noted in HBR:

The lower left corner of the Grid diagram in Exhibit I shows a 1,1 style. This represents minimal concern for production and minimal concern for people. The 1,9 style in the upper left corner depicts maximal concern for people but minimal concern for production. The 9,1 style in the lower right corner portrays maximal concern for production and minimal concern for human relationships. The 9,9 style in the upper right-hand corner represents maximal concern for both human relationships and production. The 5,5 style in the center of the diagram is “middle of the road” in both areas of concern. [18]

Below is a version of the Mouton-Blake grid that I developed in 2007. I flipped the axes of the original grid in order to highlight the parallels between the Mouton-Blake framework and the Thomas-Killmann model for conflict modes, and I’ve maintained that convention in my use of this concept. [19] The labels and terminology for the various management styles in this version of the managerial grid are adapted from subsequent work by Blake and Mouton:


It’s worth noting that while Robert Blake was the senior figure in his professional partnership with Jane Mouton, and she was his former student at the University of Texas, it’s known as the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid, presumably because the model was her idea. [20]

One Final Thought

In my simplified versions of the Mouton-Blake grid, I’ve omitted what they call “5,5 management” or the “middle-of-the-road” style. Many such companies exist, obviously–it may be the most common type of organizational culture–and it’s clearly sufficient for most of them. Not every organization is capable of reaching Paradise, but the leaders I see in my practice are aiming for something more than Business As Usual.



[1] “Work Hard or Work Smart?” Is the Wrong Question

[2] To take just one example: Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts (Dacher Keltner interviewed by David DiSalvo, Scientific American, 2009)

[3] Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization (Sergey Gavrilets and Peter Richerson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017)

[4] The fields of industrial/organizational psychology and labor relations (later known as human relations) first emerged in the 1920s and gained momentum in the 1950s, when corporations and universities that had begun collaborating to increase production during World War II continued to work together to improve management practices. A thorough documentation of the history of these fields is beyond the scope of this post, but this (uncredited and undated) article offers a good starting point: Human Relations Movement (Psychology Research and Reference)

[5] “The Human Side of Enterprise,” page 6 in Leadership and Motivation: The Essays of Douglas McGregor (Douglas McGregor, 1966. This essay was originally published in the Management Review of the American Management Association, November 1957.)

[6] 12 Companies with the Most Luxurious Employee Perks (Paul Schrodt, Money, 2017)

[7] “The Human Side of Enterprise,” page 7 (McGregor, 1957/1966)

[8] A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management and Business (Charles Munger, USC Business School, 1994)

[9] Corn Mazes and Mental Models

[10] We’re Leaky (Emotional Signals and Cognitive Dissonance)

[11] Interpersonal Dynamics

[12] A Concept Analysis of Empathy (Theresa Wiseman, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1996)

[13] Shame and Empathy (Brené Brown, 2007)

[14] Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, pages 68-69 (Brené Brown, 2012)

[15] The Difficulty of Empathizing Up

[16] Breakthrough in Organization Development (Robert Blake, Jane Mouton, Louis Barnes, and Larry Greiner, Harvard Business Review, 1964)

[17] For more on Blake, Mouton, Barnes, and Greiner:

  • Robert Blake (1918-2004) was a fascinating figure. After earning his PhD at the University of Texas in 1947, he went to London on a Fulbright Scholarship where he worked with the Tavistock Clinic and, presumably, Wilfred Bion, a pioneer in the study of group dynamics. In London Blake learned about the recent formation of the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science (aka NTL), which was in the process of developing the T-group methodology for studying group dynamics, based on the work of Kurt Lewin. Blake developed a relationship with NTL, and throughout the 1950s and ’60s he facilitated T-groups there while also teaching psychology at Texas. (For more on T-groups and NTL, see my discussion, A Brief History of T-Groups.)
  • Jane Mouton (1930-1987) was a former student of Blake’s who joined him on the psychology faculty at Texas as well as among the staff of facilitators at NTL. In that era T-groups were typically composed of male managers from large corporations, and there were relatively few female facilitators. Given the many obstacles confronting young women in this field at the time, Mouton must have been a particularly formidable person, and her death at a relatively young age seems a great loss.
    • Blake and Mouton began consulting to Exxon and other companies, and their work met with such success that they resigned from their academic positions at Texas and formed a consulting firm, Scientific Methods, that lives on today as Grid International.
    • Blake and Mouton’s work on this topic culminated in The Managerial Grid: Leadership Styles for Achieving Production Through People (1966), one of the high-water marks for the application of humanistic psychology to management practices. The field changed dramatically in the late 1960s and ’70s, as inherent contradictions in humanism combined with larger cultural currents, resulting in the excesses of the “human potential movement.” At the same time, humanistic institutions can be said to have “died of success” as their ideas became so thoroughly integrated into current management practice that they were taken for granted.
  • Louis Barnes (1928-2009) taught for many years at Harvard Business School, and his work focused on small groups within an organization, interpersonal relationships, organizational change, and the dynamics of family businesses.
  • Larry Greiner did his graduate work at HBS and taught for many years at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and it appears he died recently. Today he may be best-known for his classic 1972 HBR article, Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow, which was republished in 1998.

[18] Breakthrough in Organization Development (Harvard Business Review, 1964)

[19] Conflict Modes and Managerial Styles

[20] Asserted on Jane Mouton’s Wikipedia page.

For Further Reading

On mental models:

Corn Mazes and Mental Models

Open Space, Deep Work and Self-Care

How to Think (More on Open Space and Deep Work)

The Value of Journal Writing

Self-Coaching Is SOCIAL

On accountability:

Building a Feedback-Rich Culture

Make Getting Feedback Less Stressful

Brené Brown, Vulnerability, Empathy and Leadership

Vocabulary of Emotions

Hammering Eggs (Leadership and Problem-Solving)

On empathy:

Scott Ginsberg on Asking (Better) Questions

The Importance of Slowing Down

How Great Coaches Ask, Listen and Empathize

How Leaders Create Safety (and Danger)


Dedicated to my Stanford colleague Andrea Corney, who first taught me about the Thomas Killman conflict modes in 2007, which led to my initial interest in the work of Robert Blake and Jane Mouton.

Photos: Blackboard by Lee Nachtigal. Bully-Free Zone by Lorie Shaull. Handshakes by Roy Luck. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Three Buckets (On Transparency and Trust)

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One of the responsibilities of leadership is deciding what information to share with your employees. As I’ve written before, “Leaders must handle significant amounts of confidential information with discretion and tact while maintaining others’ trust.” [1] While current management practice favors greater openness, even Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund known for the “radical transparency” of its culture, acknowledges that leaders must withhold some information:

Radical transparency isn’t the same as total transparency… We do keep some things confidential, such as private health matters or deeply personal problems, sensitive details about intellectual property or security issues, the timing of a major trade, and at least for the short term, matters that are likely to be distorted, sensationalized and harmfully misunderstood if leaked to the press. [2]

A simple way to talk about this with employees who want more transparency is to acknowledge that all information falls into one of three buckets:

1) What You Know and Can Share

(This is the easy one.)

2) What You Know and Cannot Share

It may feel risky for you to acknowledge the existence of this bucket, because it invites curiosity about what’s inside. So it’s worth asking yourself why you’re choosing not to share this information. Management consultant Peter Block offers a rationale while addressing employees concerned about insufficient transparency:

If management knows something and is not telling us, it may be because they are worried about our feelings. They have heard our plea for protection and fulfill our request by withholding information that might make us anxious… If we want protection, we will pay the price by living in the dark. The moment we give up the protection, we will get the real story. [3]

You may have a range of reasons for withholding information, but in my experience as a coach this is the most common, and on some level it’s a factor in all situations where confidentiality is an issue: leaders are worried about employees’ feelings. While Block is challenging employees to take more responsibility for their experience and be less emotionally dependent on management, you should also feel challenged as a leader.

In some cases the withholding of information is entirely justified, and there would be a high cost if it were shared, but there’s also a cost if you always err on the side of discretion. Information-sharing is a form of truth-telling, and if you never test your employees’ capacity to handle the truth, you limit their growth and their potential contributions. At the same time, withholding information is a form of self-censorship, and as I’ve written before, “censoring ourselves is stressful and generates negative feelings [and] we will inevitably blame those negative feelings on those who ‘made us’ censor ourselves.” [4]

I’m not suggesting that nothing belongs in this bucket–it exists for good reason, as Dalio points out above. But is your decision to withhold information truly necessary? Or is it merely a “defense routine,” which the late Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris defined as “actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat.” When defense routines govern an organizational culture, when it is insufficiently safe to discuss any issue that might trigger embarrassment or threat, then candid communication becomes impossible, and performance inevitably suffers.

3) What You Don’t Know

It may feel vulnerable for you to acknowledge the existence of this bucket, particularly if you face expectations (from your employees, your peers or yourself) that an effective leader should be more knowledgeable than anyone else in the organization. But when we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this is the biggest bucket by far. Peter Block continues:

The more likely reason we do not hear the real story directly from management is that often they don’t know it. They don’t know what will happen to us, our unit, our organization. They can’t predict the future any better than we can. It is the child in us that believes that our bosses know everything. What we want from them, they just do not have. [6]

Admitting the vastness of our ignorance can be uncomfortable, but until we do we’re fooling ourselves–true wisdom lies in realizing how little we know. [7] I’m not suggesting that you disclose gaps in your knowledge that would cause employees to lose faith in your ability as a leader–but I am suggesting that you consider the cost of failing to disclose any gaps.

Employees tend to overestimate how much a leader actually knows, in part because we habitually fail to “empathize up.” [8] But as a consequence they’re less likely to volunteer information that they believe the leader already possesses, and they may assume that any information they don’t have is being actively withheld from them. When you step into the vulnerability inherent in saying, “I don’t know,” you make it more likely that people will help you to fill that gap, and you increase their faith in your trustworthiness. This also contributes to a greater sense of psychological safety, a topic studied by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson:

No one wants to take the interpersonal risk of imposing ideas when the boss appears to think he or she knows everything… Humility is the simple recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and you certainly don’t have a crystal ball. Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behavior. [9]

Intentions vs. Judgment

Your ability to hold a fruitful dialogue with employees about information-sharing, transparency and confidentiality will be determined by their trust in you as a leader–but note that trust is not a monolithic quality. As I’ve written before, we assess people as trustworthy (or not) on two dimensions, their intentions and their judgment:

When we trust someone’s intentions but doubt their judgment, it’s usually easier. We can provide clearer guidance, offer more support, and strive to avoid miscommunication, while also determining whether their lack of judgment is a fatal flaw, a fixable problem, or an illusion based on inaccurate data.

When we trust someone’s judgment but doubt their intentions, it’s usually harder. We can limit our engagement with them and minimize our exposure to risk, while also determining whether their bad intentions are truly malevolent, merely opportunistic, or just a misunderstanding. [10]

If employees distrust your judgment when it comes to making decisions about information-sharing, that’s certainly a challenge, but it’s possible to have a healthy debate about the respective rationales for your decisions and their preferences. You may ultimately agree to disagree, but you can still have a productive working relationship. It’s a much more serious problem when employees distrust your intentions in these matters–and this is where the metaphor of the three buckets may provide a helpful starting point for discussion.


[1] Leadership and Authenticity

[2] Principles: Life and Work, page 331 (Ray Dalio, 2017)

[3] The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters, pages 112-113 (Peter Block, 2003)

[4] Risk Management (The Importance of Speaking Up)

[5] Overcoming Organizational Defenses, page 25 (Chris Argyris, 1990)

[6] The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters, page 113

[7] The three stages of expertise (Simon Wardley, 2008)

[8] The Difficulty of Empathizing Up

[9] How Fearless Organizations Succeed (Amy Edmondson, stragegy+business, 2018)

[10] Two Sides of Trust

Photo by Adele Prince. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Lead Generation Experts