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Posted by on Sep 27, 2010

“If I Don’t Tell People My Story They Will Make One Up For Me”

Sometimes, clients are our best teachers.

I experienced this a few years ago working with the director of a federal agency office in Wyoming. During a leadership development session, “Paul” (name changed to protect his identity) said something I’ll never forget, and which, when shared with others, tends to produce a lot of immediate agreement.

We were talking about how rumors start, how information rushes in to fill any vacuums in organizations, and how people view leaders. That’s when Paul dropped the line:

“One thing I’ve learned as a leader is that if I don’t tell people my story, they’ll make one up for me.”

What does this mean?

It certainty doesn’t mean contriving some version of reality that is palatable and designed to get others to go along with you. No, the story that Paul meant can also be conveyed by the words “disclosure” or “transparency.”

If you’ve ever wondered why leaders or organizations did something that made no sense to you, then you know why disclosure and transparency matter.

These words mean explaining to people why you are doing what you are doing; why, in the past tense, you did what you did; or in the future tense, why you are thinking of doing something. If they don’t know or understand, they will invent something. This may be a conscious or unconscious process – they may not even be aware of what they are doing – but it will happen, nevertheless.

Given the significant risks of distortion, misunderstanding, misperception or imputed motives, why in the world would anyone not tell others his or her story? There are two biggies.

First, leaders claim they do not have time. Without delving here into all the ways information can be exchanged efficiently, think about this: How well does it work for you to have someone above you say he or she does not have time to communicate with you? To quote Dr. Phil, “How is that working for you?” The short answer is, it doesn’t. To be sure, there will always be some very small percentage of the workforce that doesn’t actually care about the why behind the what that is shaping their world, but most people want to know. They need to make sense of their experience. Beyond this, take a guess as to what is identified time and time again as the number one problem in organizations. That’s right: Lack of communication.

Second, telling people your story means you are accountable for the values behind the actions. If you do things out of convenience, for self-serving reasons, or without regard to others, then you have to explain that, and peoples’ worst suspicions are confirmed. Transparency is tough.

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