Distrust and the Death of Openness


Today I was talking with a client who told me of a refreshing comment by one of her executives. This business leader was talking about openness, one of the company’s values. He said that trust is necessary in order to have openness, and that the opposite of trust is fear. When a culture of fear exists in an organization, you can forget about anyone being open and transparent.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about this very subject. At the time, I said that communication works to its fullest potential only when it happens against the backdrop of trust. If people don’t trust each other, they won’t be able to listen to each other with empathy and understanding, and they certainly won’t take the risk of openly expressing their thoughts and ideas.

Just knowing that there’s a business executive out there who is willing to get at the root cause of a problem facing too many organizations makes me hopeful. A lot of executives would stop after laying down a platitude about how we need to be more open and transparent and blah blah blah. But to say the real issue is one of trust, and that we’ll never have an open culture if we don’t learn to trust one another — well, that’s pretty bold. And living out that proclamation, being trustworthy and trusting people, as I believe this leader does, is even bolder.

As often happens, this feel-good moment contrasted with a news item of the day. National Public Radio fired one of its high-profile journalists, Juan Williams, for politically incorrect remarks he made on Fox News. Williams is a liberal, but unlike most commentators these days, he delivers his views in a thoughtful, intelligent manner. That’s why pundits across the political spectrum criticized NPR for sacking Williams. NPR came across as being intolerant of any views that conflict with its liberal bent, even when they come from someone with a liberal bent, and even if he is widely respected for expressing his views in a dignified manner.

Such is the political culture of our nation today. Open communication about issues can’t take place — on the airwaves, in the halls of Congress, in bars or backyards — because nobody trusts anyone any more. The left doesn’t trust the right. The right doesn’t trust the left. People don’t trust the government. Politicians don’t trust the voters. We’ve become a nation of distrustful, untrustworthy, fearful, cynical people and as a result one of our greatest freedoms — the freedom to communicate ideas openly — is unable to function as it should.

As I wrote last year, trust takes a long time to build but only an instant to tear down. Unfortunately, people in our country have been doing a lot more tearing down than building up in recent years. And now, even those who aim for a higher level of conversation are being kicked out.

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2 Responses

  1. The fact that Juan Williams gets sacked, and Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern still thrive is a sad state of our culture.

  2. Hi Robert. I’ve been giving some thought to the critical three – trust, loyalty and pride. When “institutions” and/or their leaders don’t trust, aren’t loyal and don’t have any real pride in the work. It’s hard for individuals to trust, be loyal or have pride in their institutions or leaders.

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