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Who Are You Going to Believe—Really?

The need for teams to have the facts first and fully available is the key to success, but there are so many reasons team members can keep what’s happening under wraps.


The need for teams to have the facts first and fully available is the key to success, but there are so many reasons team members can keep what’s happening under wraps. You can justify putting the true situation in a black box because sometimes making sausage right now is really ugly, but everything’s going to be all right in a month or two. At other times people just make up stuff because the actual circumstances of what’s going on could reveal a really embarrassing disaster. When money and reputation are on the live, it’s easy to get loose with the truth.

I first heard commedian Richard Pryor say it, “Are you going to believe me, or are you going to believe your lying eyes?” What Pryor said as a joke in a stand-up monologue is often now just the way things are done in some organizations. We were working with Enron teams in 2001 when it collapsed on one December day. Enron employees told us that during all hands meetings chairman Ken Lay continually told everyone that the future of Enron was bright and secure. Most never saw it coming. When truth isn’t told, disaster will inevitably happen.

Truth and Transparency on Teams—Not Ever Easy

Truth and transparency are the oxygen and water of a successful team, so necessary to life—but too often on teams you just feel parched and breathless. Who’s working on the project fixes and when will they be done? It seems that this would be an easy question to ask, but it’s not.

Business writers always put transparency as their first bullet point in their list to describe successful teams—but they don’t tell you how difficult transparency is to achieve.

You can’t just ask basic questions in organizations because these questions threaten a lot of people who need the false narrative that everything is going well. So we’re driving down a dirt road at 90 miles an hour toward the cliff that looms before us, but nobody is allowed say we’re about to go over the edge.

Early On We Learn to Ration What We Say

From earliest childhood, we bring our wariness of telling the truth to the workplace. Truth telling and being transparent have multiple risks and consequences—getting promoted, getting fired, being accepted as a team player by colleagues, first come to mind. These are followed by unemployment, starvation, and tragedy—all depending on what comes out of our mouths. It’s both funny and tragic, but it’s the untold results of being transparent and telling the truth.

Frankness is Seldom Rewarded

The person who blurts out what he/she thinks in any situation is not seen positively. At best most of us approach truth with the wariness of someone sweeping an unknown field for undetonated mines that could explode and kill at any moment. The number of people most of us feel comfortable being open with is extremely few—and that for good reason.

That being said, transparency is perhaps the biggest factor in achieving team alignment—the single most important determinant of whether a team survives and achieves its goals.

The Path Toward Transparent Teams

Here are some basic steps toward transparent teams:

  • Team Formation—Connecting Team Members with each other. As a team member, I’m not going to be open with you until I know you. You first have to form a relationship with me so I know you can be trusted.
    Teams and trust don’t form by themselves. You need a coach. Can you imagine a sports team that doesn’t have a training camp led by professional coaches? There is way too much on the line with multi-million dollar player contracts along with a winning or loosing season.
    The very same thing is true of business teams. You need coaches and a playbook before you begin, not in midgame, although few business organizations do what seems to be obvious.
    In many traditional organizations today, they field their team and wait to see who succeeds or who doesn’t. The formation process is seen as too expensive and time consuming, and a bit embarrassing in some organizations. They think individual team members should “get it” on their own.
    All too often leaders’ approach to team formation is to suggest that all the team members go out for a beer from time to time and bond as best as they can. Team members need to know the team playbook and how the other team members operate at the beginning of the process, not in midstream. Successful formation is key.
  • Roles and Goals. To develop a transparent and truthful team, you don’t need sermons and sanctions—you begin with the team goals and deadlines and who is responsible for what. When the goal is not clearly laid out and the roles are not clearly defined, space is created for people to duck, weave, and hide. When the goals aren’t clear, people make up their own goals or what they think the goals should be. So, if it seems that no one really knows clearly what’s going on, convene team members to define the goals, clarify roles and set deadlines. Then transparency will be easier.
  • Self-Awareness/Accountability. You “gotta know each other’s stuff” is fundamental. If your team has the right formation and clear goals, then you have to fearlessly know your strengths, weaknesses, and quirks—otherwise people get lost in the weeds, distracted and off course, swirl in conflict, and all the many other moments that teams lose momentum. We each must be accountable for getting our part of the defined goals done, and we can’t be bashful in holding ourselves and the other team members accountable.

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