Trust – What executives can learn from A-Rod

What bothers me about the Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) story now in the news is not that he used steroids early in his career.  We know that steroid use in baseball (and football…) is epidemic.  What really bothers me is that a supposedly confidential and anonymous test wasn’t either one.  Never again will any major league baseball player (or minor league, or college…) participate in any “confidential” study.  The trust has been entirely blown.

I have conducted employee surveys for many companies over the years.  And I’ve always been intrigued by employees and managers who are so obsessed with confidentiality.  It is a clear indicator that trust is lacking within the organization.  (Of course we will conduct every survey to be confidential – meaning we will not release any individual information, period.)

I’ve always thought that an open and productive work environment should be one where opinions are shared so that problems and misperceptions can be corrected or at least understood.

The vast majority of executives and managers I have worked with respect confidentiality and welcome other opinions.  They truly want to understand what employees are thinking and to make the workplace better.  However, a small percentage of executives and managers are so insecure in their positions, and zealous in their need for control, that they welcome the thinking of their people only if it agrees with their own thinking.

I once observed a leadership 360-degree process in which an executive shared his thinking that the CEO’s regular profanity-laced diatribes against former executives needed to be toned-down.  I thought that was valuable input to someone who claimed to want to make improvements.  While other participants told the executive privately that they admired his willingness to share thoughts that the CEO might not like, the CEO clearly held it against him and omitted it from the CEO’s report to the board (although he included all other comments.)  The message was clear to all in the executive ranks.

Much of the leadership literature of the past 20 years has addressed how to create an open, engaging, and involved workplace – particularly at the executive level.  An honest and candid approach can be very valuable.  Jack Welch, for example, is not known for being nicey-nice, yet he (apparently) worked hard to create an environment where he would get the best thinking from his people, tapping the diversity of thought to find the best solutions.

Smaller “leaders” do the opposite.  They pretend to be collaborative and participative by saying the nicey-nice things, but regularly demonstrate manipulation and control in their actions.  They are posers, and they’ll never get the best from their people.

A-Rod made a mistake early in his career by using steroids — a fact that he has acknowledged.  But perhaps the bigger mistake was to trust in the “confidential” and “anonymous” study.

Can major league baseball ever gain credibility and confidence of the players again?  If so, what would it take to do it?  And what can other organizations learn from this?

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