How Childlike Transparency Should Guide Your Leadership Style

By: Zeynep Ilgaz

As a full-time business leader and a full-time parent, it has become clear to me that both of these endeavors require high levels of trust. In order for our teams (and our kids) to thrive and feel motivated, we must communicate openly and devote great effort toward teaching, guiding, and supporting them as they grow and mature. 

It is so disappointing to see that, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, one in three employees don’t trust their employers. To me, this alarming statistic is a symptom of a much bigger problem within the business world: A lack of communication and honesty between business leaders and their teams.

Nearly 70 percent of today's managers say they struggle to communicate openly with their workers. They fear the truth may be more harmful than helpful, so they aren't as forthcoming as they should be about organizational decisions, strategies, and overall company performance. 

In reality, however, I believe transparent, honest leadership is pivotal to a strong, successful business — and, really, it's not very difficult to embrace a level of open communication that builds trust with your team. It simply requires entrepreneurs to turn to children for inspiration and guidance.

Lessons in Honesty From Children

One thing is for certain: Kids can be brutally honest. They are not afraid to say whatever is on their mind — even if it's blunt, critical, or downright humiliating.

As we age, however, we rely more and more on half-truths and white lies. We try to avoid confrontation, and we tend to forget that honesty really is the best policy.

There is no question that business leaders could benefit from readopting the approach to honesty they embodied as children. Here are three specific ways they can do so:

1. Lose your filter.

For parents, there's nothing more embarrassing than when your kid tells a stranger he smells bad or announces to a whole restaurant that she needs to go potty. Although, it’s also refreshing to deal with someone who doesn't beat around the bush and tells it like it is. If anything, this proves that kids truly are some of the greatest communicators on the planet.

Business leaders would be wise to utilize this same direct and truthful approach to communication when discussing business matters and personal performance with employees. In fact, a survey by Harvard Business Review found that 70 percent of employees feel more engaged at work when senior leaders provide regular updates regarding companywide happenings, even if these updates contain bad news.

I admire the Container Store's fearless approach to honesty. In its "Foundation Principles," the company states, "We want every single employee in our company to know absolutely everything."

I have the same goal at my company, and I try to accomplish it by, for example, making our financial data readily available to all team members. We also have weekly staff meetings where nothing is off limits. We talk about deals that are in the pipeline, potential partnerships, good news, bad news, and everything in between. Stop sugarcoating your communication. Include your employees in discussions about important business matters, and ask for their help in solving problems. They will rally around you, and this collaboration will strengthen your entire team.

2. Learn to say “no.”

When kids are young, “no” is one of their favorite things to say. No, they don’t want to take a bath. No, they don’t want to eat their vegetables. No, they don’t want to pick up their toys. While this phase can be frustrating for parents, it is admirable how committed kids are to doing only what they think is right for them.

Saying “no” is much more difficult in a professional setting. An intense, ongoing sense of competition pushes us all to work harder, take on more, and never stop. We refuse to delegate, we refuse to turn down requests, and our performance and job satisfaction suffer because of it. In fact, one McKinsey & Company report found that only 9 percent of business leaders rated themselves as “very satisfied” when it came to how they allocate their time from day to day.

As a leader, you must learn when it is appropriate — and necessary — to say “no.” Turn down projects you don’t have time for, and reject promises you can’t guarantee you’ll keep. It’s the only way to ensure the best ideas and projects get the attention they deserve, and it's the only way to keep your team's expectations grounded in reality.

3. Let your body talk.

Kids are told that actions speak louder than words — and this is perhaps why they resort to pouting, crying, stomping feet, and throwing tantrums when words fail them. While I’m not suggesting you embody any of these specific behaviors, you can definitely take a cue from kids and consider how your body language can improve your leadership.

World-renowned psychologist Albert Mehrabian discovered that body language does, in fact, speak louder than words. During a face-to-face conversation, more messages are sent through nonverbal means than through the words being spoken. Therefore, if you’re lying to your employees, there’s a good chance they can tell. This also means if things in the office are stressful or bleak, you could calm the stormy waters simply by having a relaxed or optimistic demeanor.

Educate yourself on body language interpretation to unlock productive and honest conversations with your team. Remember to be conscious of the impact your body language has on your employees’ attitudes, actions, and outlooks. And be aware that lying to your employees is never fool-proof and, therefore, not worth the risk.

We teach our kids that the basis of any good relationship is honesty and trust, but we often forget the same principles apply to our leadership style at work. Build trust with your employees, earn their respect, and create an atmosphere of inclusion by leading with childlike transparency.


Originally from Turkey, Zeynep Ilgaz and her husband co-founded Confirm Biosciences and TestCountry, where Ilgaz serves as president and CEO. Confirm Biosciences is a national provider of diagnostic products for human wellness, animal health, and environmental testing. Ms. Ilgaz received the Most Admired CEO Award in San Diego in 2016, and Confirm Biosciences was recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in 2014 and 2015. Most recently, Ms. Ilgaz has been honored as a finalist for EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 in San Diego.

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