Trust implies you are with me and not against me. But how to do you signal that you are trustworthy? Turns out that trust has two opposing elements. Sometimes it is about what you share, sometimes about what you don’t share.
In my work, I encounter projects that must be kept protected from prying eyes. Yet, many times I work on projects where I seek to share information with anyone who will listen or care. My company trusts me with certain information knowing that I will not share it with the wrong parties. And I disclose information in certain cases to engender trust by being “transparent.” Sharing and hiding are two sides of the same trust coin.
I face this question of sharing v.s. non sharing in the context of Open Source projects. Many times the appropriate behavior is obvious. When we participate in the world of Open Source, we seek to be as transparent as we can. The Open Source world is well tuned to identify attempts to hide information. Moreover, the very behavior that makes “Open” source effective is the nature of openness. On the other hand, when a company engages in Open Source sharing, there is some reality that companies do have secrets. Moreover, even if something isn’t a secret per se, there are some things you don’t share publicly. Some sharing erodes trust.
I thought about it and realized the following simple model. We have an indoor voice and an outside voice. They convey different messages. Within my company, I’m going to point out some flaws as part of the constructive process of improving things. This voice is perceived to be trustworthy when my message shows loyalty to the company. When I’m using an outside voice, I don’t bring attention to flaws, as this would be perceived as disloyal. Note, I don’t have to become a disingenuous shill. Let’s be perfectly clear, no company is without flaws. But when outside the company, my voice is trusted if I’m forthcoming — and yes, also loyal.
Let’s examine what happens when we reverse this. I’ll use the example of a company sponsored Open Source project (but you can extrapolate to other cases). When working in a public group, if I overly play my loyalty to my company more than my loyalty to the project, then I’ll be considered less trusted by the project. I have seen cases where participants in Open Source projects act “too corporate” (hiding information, being perceived to have a hidden agenda, etc.) and are rejected by the project members for this. The social sphere (social media, etc.) expects transparency. When we communicate in a less than forthcoming manner, people perceive we are hiding something from them. This invites distrust.
Consider the opposide. When inside a company, if you convey your bias towards publicity (at the expense of loyalty), then you can invite distrust too! I have encountered a number of employees who insisted to me that they must share some information publicly since it invites trust — but failed to see how their sharing would actually hurt. For example, one employee told me that he was contributing to a project that another team at Yahoo! was actively contributing to, but refused to work with that team internally since he thought they were idiots and were “doing it wrong.” (I have no opinion as to whether he was correct.) He wanted to fix the problems he found with their project by joining the external community and fixing it in public. I suggested to him that airing dirty laundry is probably not a ninja-move for someone who wants to get ahead in his career. If he had a problem with the other team within the company, he should address it within the confines of the company. By going public he’d simply invite a host of other problems. It took him a while to understand that it looks bad to be disloyal, since he sincerely thought that being transparent (about his feelings that the other team were idiots) would invite trust.
I encounter other examples like the one above where people think that oversharing is the only way to earn trust. It is like exercising one muscle group without paying attention to the opposing muscle group. Employees who work in the open have to balance two behaviors, being open and being discreet. When playing the right behavior in the right context, you become incredibly trusted and respected. When playing the opposite behavior, the reverse happens. Thus it is less about the behavior of transparency and discretion per se; Trust is earned by understanding when to express the appropriate behavior in the right context. Both behaviors are essential.
We live in a flawed world full of imperfections. Companies are not perfect. Personal relationships are not perfect. Indeed nothing is perfect. We always seek to improve where we can. Being a trusted partner in the process is a big enabler to working with others and fixing things together. When on the “inside” you have to demonstrate your loyalty — which implies that you need to protect the honor of your inner circle. When on the “outside” you have to demonstrate your openness — which implies that you need to reveal your biases, disclose your loyalties, and be forthcoming.