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How Being Open and Honest Made Me a Better Virtual Leader

Marcus Wermuth
Marcus Wermuth
3 min read

We at Buffer are a fully distributed team. Managing or keeping a relationship with this kind of setup depends almost completely on the people and the culture.

There is a lot of focus on the whole process of how we can conduct our work. One of the topics about remote work and virtual leadership you’ll always hear or find is trust. Trust in letting your company work completely remotely. But how can you build trust in a company where you only always see the persons you work with on a monitor?

My journey to finding out about trust

I thought a lot about this question and it took me a while to find or experience the answer. I used one of our values here at Buffer: Default to TransparencyTransparency is something we at Buffer value quite a lot. We share our salaries, our business numbers, how we work, and most of our challenges. It is built right into our DNA. In my eyes, transparency can also be seen as being open and honest with everyone inside Buffer but also everyone else outside of it. Looking at past examples, we shared what was happening even though it was not something you would consider good news. Some years back when Buffer was hacked, we were super open about what was happening, what had been breached, and what we are doing against it.

Did this hurt the business? Some users who were concerned about the security, in general, might have left but as soon as we shared our journey through this, people cheered along the way and gave us a lot of motivation that we can fix this and come out stronger. Those moments are the best because it shows that we are honest and want nothing more than the best for the user. Why would we hide it? Why should we not tell the public what happened, what good would that do? — It would make us just less credible.

So is that what trust is all about? Trusting the other party that they’ll always be open and honest with you, and the other way around? In my opinion, this is not far from its definition:

assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something one in which confidence is placed

How did that affect my leadership

Personally, in my short career as a Team Lead and Engineering Manager, I am becoming more aware of how important it is to be open and honest. Especially in a confrontation with your team and other co-workers. But it is not something you do easily. Most of us tend to say what makes others feel good, being honest and open on the other hand requires some kind of skill or strength to overcome. I definitely encountered occasions, in my private life and work life, where I thought, should I tell the whole story and be open about it or just tell the necessary thing and let the rest happen?

Almost always I’ve chosen the first option. Tell everything, keep everyone in the loop, and go on. In some cases, I was astounded of how much different the outcome was in comparison to what I expected. All the time for the better, of course:

  • Should I mention to my team that there some early higher level product decisions going on? — Yes, of course, there could be some valuable feedback in the thoughts of the specialists in their field like no one else.
  • Should I keep my direct report in the loop of the ongoing and process of his promotion on every detail? — Yes, of course, that makes everyone feel safe and knowing what’s going on.
  • Should I share in my 1:1 with my manager what I am thinking about this process or how the current flow could be optimized? — Yes as this can add some extra thoughts to her work and maybe help her decide. And even if it doesn’t, you have shared it and don’t need to think about it anymore!

Those are just some basic examples coming to mind. You’ll all probably have many more occasion in which you thought for this millisecond “Should I?”

Giving feedback

Another important fact about being honest and open is that this will make the feedback you give and/or get so much more valuable. If you can give honest feedback (be it positive or negative) on a regular basis and in a good way, everyone will know where they stand and what they can do, and will never be surprised by something. Just share all your thoughts on why you made the decision to give the positive or negative feedback. There will be no question left unanswered, and the other party can use the feedback for what it is without unnecessary anxiety around it. I think the same is to say about receiving feedback. You yourself definitely want to receive something honest from your manager or peer in order to tackle it or be proud of it!

I hope that this post will maybe help you even just in one situation where you may decide to tell it all. Maybe you’ll notice how good it feels and how good the other person will react. If you don’t, maybe you’ll receive some honest news, feedback, or thoughts and understand how it is from the other side. All in all, whether you’re a manager or not, be open and honest with everyone around you. It is for the better of the company and your life in general.