Zero Trust Leadership

A common occurrence with technical people who have grown to leadership positions is to appear secretive and nontalkative. Whatever worked when you were a senior engineer doesn’t always map that well as you progress, and that becomes more acute the higher up you get.

Reasons might include low EQ, being introverted, or merely thinking all the talking is useless, but that can make you come across as someone that’s keeping their cards close the chest. Without being aware of the importance of clear and fast communication, organizations create a culture of fear.

Let’s consider a few examples, so you can imagine what we’re talking about here:

  • As the VPE, the director that you usually update first about essential things is Alice, simply because she sits next to you, other people might feel like information is only shared with some, even though you were just chatting.
  • As the leader, you have 1:1s with all your engineers but end up mainly listening without talking. People end up reading it as you trying to gather information and not a conversation. This behavior might stem from your hate of small talk, but that’s what they see.
  • A re-org, someone leaving, or big shot hire, all not formally communicated for too long yet leaked, resulting in a cascade of whispers and versions. You thought you’d let everyone know in two weeks, but the rumor mill bested you.

When communication is seemed as scarce, people tend to feel like there’s no trust and no safety. Rumors become common practice during lunchtime, and information becomes currency: whoever knows the latest is “in the know”. It doesn’t matter if it sounds silly to you, I’ve seen this happen in many companies, big and small.

And these then manifest as fear. Fear of speaking up when you think someone is wrong. Fear of making mistakes, as you have no idea what people will say behind your back. Fear of trying anything novel. I won’t go so far as to say you’ll create your very own Theranos, but I’ve unfortunately seen companies where the feeling was close.

Accept that communication is a tenet a healthy culture, and that, in turn, is reliant on people feeling safe.

  • Don’t make something confidential without a reason.
  • If something is sensitive, treat it so. Leaks are usually more harmful than merely saying it.
  • Communicate news fast and in an open manner.
  • Make it a habit to talk, not just listen. I know you’re told 1:1s are for the other person, and that’s fine. But if they feel like you’re just jotting down mental notes and not contributing, they will feel observed, not discussing.