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The Well of Good Will
How your employees react to bad news is determined long before, based on how much trust you have built up with them.
Leaders always worry about sharing bad news with their team. How will they react? Will they panic? What if they leave? The fear of reactions to bad news is one of the biggest stresses on leadership, since there is always bad news.
The most common mistake leaders make is assuming that the reaction of your team is based on how you deliver bad. Employees react to good and bad news based on their overall relationship with the company, and specifically how much trust they have in leadership. If they trust you, they will celebrate good news and take bad news in stride. If they have no trust, they won’t believe good news and will bolt immediately upon any bad news. Your delivery has little impact on the reaction.
As a result, your job as a leader is to build trust. I think about this using a model called “The Well of Good Will”, where you envision employee trust as a big empty well. Every time you do something to build trust, you add a little to the well. Every time you surprise the team with bad news, you draw down the well a lot. If the well ever runs dry, employees are going to leave.
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There are a lot of ways to fill up the Well of Good Will:
Great employee onboarding experience. There is nothing better than having the employee get off to a good start, since all employees start with an empty well. Great employee onboarding isn’t just free snacks and parties, it’s about transparency, organization and access. The more organized you are in getting the employee up to speed, the more they trust the company knows what it is doing. The more transparent you are about how things are going, the more they trust you are being honest with them. I always make sure new employees have time with the CEO their first week to ask whatever questions they have, as it’s a great way to add to the Well.
Honest, open communications. The more you trust employees, the more they will trust you. This means sharing good news and bad news as it happens, not waiting on it and having it leak out through rumors and back channels. If employees hear news from you it fills the well, if they hear about it from someone else it draws it down. The best companies add to the well by having everything open and accessible to employees on their internal tools so anyone can find what they need at any time without asking for permission.
Demonstrating values. Most companies have values and very few follow those values with actions. Every time you make a decision or take an action based on your company values, be sure to tell the team and highlight why it was important. Staying true to your principles adds to the well because it shows that you mean what you say, and will stay true to your word.
Your company likely has many more ways for you to add to the Well of Good Will, and you should make sure you’re using all of them. It takes a long time to fill the Well, since each action that adds to the Well only contributes a little bit. Consistency over long periods of time is necessary to fill it.
Drawing Down the Well
Inevitably, your company will reach a crisis where you need to draw down the Well of Good Will. It might be a system outage where everyone has to work weekends, it might be layoffs or it could be worse. Whatever it is, you need to be confident that when you draw down the Well it’s full enough to not run dry. The only way to overcome a company crisis is to have the team come together, and that only happens if trust is high.
One of the most inspiring moments of my professional life was many years ago in the middle of the holiday season when we had a massive corruption in our product database. The only way to restore the system was to manually restore the database, block by block, which required constant manual supervision 24 hours a day for weeks. The entire engineering team was home for the holidays, and I had to call them and ask them to volunteer for slots around the clock instead of spending it with their families. I could not assign them to do it, this wasn’t the army, I had to ask and hope they would volunteer. Without hesitation they rose to the occasion, rallied together and we had 24/7 coverage to manually restore the database. It was inspiring, and only possible because we had spent years filling the Well of Good Will.
After you draw down the well during a crisis, you need to start filling it up again. In fact, you never stop filling up the Well of Good Will over the entire life of your company! It should become part of how you operate the business, with trust-building baked into the core process and operations. Trust is the lifeblood of your company, so it makes sense it would flow through everything you do.
Despite all of the horrible stories you read, most employees want to trust their employers. They want to work for companies that are ethical and trustworthy, so they want you to fill the Well of Good Will. That’s great, because it means it’s simply up to you to do the right things to build trust.
In the end, the Well of Good Will is just a mental model for trust. You need to trust someone first before they will trust you, even though it’s the hardest part of leadership. Take that first step, take the risk of trusting your team, and you’ll be surprised at how far it takes you.