Why are people more honest with us when we are leaving?

Recently I was coaching a leader we will call Sarah through a complex transition in her career. She had been at her company just shy of four years when a dream job came knocking. We spent a great deal of time thinking through if this was the right opportunity for her and going through all the pros and cons of making a change to this new opportunity. Once we confirmed this was the right move for her we began framing how she would break the news to her boss and the company, and we also prepared answers to all the potential questions she was likely to face when she told them she was leaving. We walked through how Sarah would communicate the news to the company and tried to anticipate all potential reactions.

When the day came for Sarah to communicate her resignation, everything went as well as it could have. While our preparation had anticipated most of the reactions from her management chain, she was not prepared for the reaction of her co-workers and colleagues that soon followed.

As the word spread that Sarah was leaving, colleagues she had worked with extensively over four years started to approach her and ask to speak with her in private, take her to lunch or go out for a coffee. One conversation after another, Sarah was surprised to find herself having real, authentic and heartfelt conversations that were, in her view, more open and more candid than they have ever been. Questions started to surface that presumably were not “fair game” topics when Sarah was an active employee with an ongoing relationship inside the firm: “What do you really think of the company?”, “What do you really think of your boss and the management team?”, and “Do you really think that Project X makes sense and has the right resources?”

It was almost as if by resigning, Sarah was now capable of being a trusted confidant. Sarah’s colleagues shared their own fears about the company, they shared their frustrations, and they wanted to know why she had chosen to leave. Remarkably, all these conversations were some of the most ‘real’ and honest talks Sarah had ever had with many of her colleagues. On one level it made her sad that it took her leaving the company for these conversations to begin, and Sarah asked herself if perhaps she had not invited these honest discussions with her co-workers. While I was not completely surprised to hear this experience unfold, I began to reflect on my own experiences with leaving a company and sure enough, I recall in almost every circumstance I had several colleagues be very honest with topics we never had really spoken about previously. In fact, if you reflect on your own experiences my sense is that you too likely experienced something similar when you left an organization.

On one level, clearly people feel safer to express their true feelings about something with someone who is “outside” the system, someone who is not a political threat, but at the same time, this is a real missed opportunity. While I think we would all agree that we want to work in places where there is a high degree of openness and honesty at all times and that people feel safe and trusted to share difficult truths with one another, we also must be honest with ourselves and recognize that there are some topics that we are reluctant to open up about, and there are certain individuals we do not trust.

Trust is a very interesting topic within an organization. Thomas Koulopoulos, CEO, and author points out in a recent article on trust, “What I’ve realized over the years in working with many people is that there is nothing as vital to a relationship and yet as fragile as trust. The plain truth is that if you are doing business and establishing relationships with trustworthy people, you will be able to weather almost any storm. By the same token, if you’ve been unfortunate enough to get into bed with someone who is not trustworthy, even a mild breeze will capsize the relationship.” Koulopoulos goes on in that article to give some great advice on how to determine if your colleagues are trustworthy.

In a 2016 CEO study, PWC revealed that 50% of CEOs consider lack of trust to be a major threat to organization growth. In fact, Paul Zak, a Harvard researcher also published a study in the Harvard Business Review early last year demonstrating that people working in environments with high trust actually experience less stress.

Building an organization of real candor and trust takes work. It does not just happen because you will it to happen. Like many things, these cultures of trust start at the top, they start by leaders demonstrating that the big elephant in the room IS OK to discuss. From my experience leaders who own mistakes and demonstrate they are working to improve themselves set a great tone for the organization towards building a path of trust and real honesty. The next time you approach someone in your organization who is leaving, ask yourself if you are being more open now than you have before, and consider what could have happened if you had discussed some of these topics before finding out they were leaving. Building cultures of trust can pay great dividends and lay a foundation for you and those around you to do great work and feel less stress.

© 2018 Steve Cadigan All rights reserved.


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