Honne and Tatemae – Trust and Productivty in the Workplace

Seeing how people were happier and healthier after shifting movement patterns to align with their natural structures, gave him the deepest sense of reward he’s felt professionally. Having built impactful and successful businesses in consumer health as well as clinical laboratory, his passion and mission have led him to founding Way. Check out his work and learn more here.

Mary has a secret – her life is imploding. Her family suffered a major loss of her brother. She’s the mom of school-aged children. When she goes to work at her laboratory everyday, co-workers and staff ask her how she is doing. She’s told them that her brother passed away, but on a daily basis, she just opts for saying, “Things are fine”, or “Things are good”.

Inside, she’s wrenching and tormenting, grappling with this loss, suppressing her grief, and maintaining her keeping her mindset and spirit high. She’s doing the best she can, so she thinks.

How studying Sumo Wrestlers in Japan who cheat can show us the importance of creating trust and productivity in the workplace. (Credit: Freakonomics)

This is an extreme example of the difference between the Honne (hidden truth) and the Tatemae (superficial truth). I first heard of this social and cultural dynamic from the Freakonomics documentary – where they studied Sumo Wrestlers in Japan (short video is shown above). Sumo Wrestlers were known for having the highest form of integrity (superficial truth), but underneath the surface, the data revealed they had been cheating for years (hidden truth).

Seeing the Gap of Hidden and Superficial Truth in the Workplace

The permutations and forms of Honne and Tatemae are so numerous that they are nearly impossible to quantify. Each story has a different form, a slightly different hue or taste.

Another example may be a bit more relatable. Jonathan feels self-conscious about his body image. He’s always been larger-bodied, and early in life he was made fun of and bullied by friends quite a bit. Learning early in life, that staying quiet and being to himself are the ways to keep him safe from public ridicule, shame, and the social isolation that stems from it. To co-workers, he seems nice but shy. 

Some co-workers are unsure or even a little suspicious of him, because he talks so little. And, when he’s raging underneath because someone made a remark about his body, his emotional wounds are opened back up, and he can turn a bit sour and behave a bit bitterly and seems to be in a hurry. He’s just protecting himself and maybe only partially conscious of his tenderness underneath the surface.

Both of these stories illustrate a fundamental reality – there’s a gap between what we say to other people and what we’re actually experiencing in life. What we actually feel and believe.

Why Mental and Emotional Safety are Key to Trust and Productivity

When I look at the best teams in any area of society – whether that’s the highest performing organization, the championship team, Navy SEALs, or even the most volunteering church or spiritual organization, there seems to be a common thread – there is a much smaller gap between the Honne and the Tatemae. The superficial truth that everyone communicates and the hidden truth of what they believe and feel, are almost one and the same. There’s just enough of a gap to allow for genuine individuality, coupled with an honest respect for each individual’s whole self (not just the parts you like). 

This isn’t forced or forceful, it’s naturally occurring and from my experience stems from the one root first principle that embeds itself in every nook of every civilization over all of history – safety comes first. 

I know that’s a big statement, but I’ve stress tested it with the smartest people I can find all over the world and with the everyday good citizen. There’s been 100% agreement of this truth, which makes it self-evident. 

It’s rare in this world to get 50% agreement on one thing, idea, or notion. To get 100% agreement from all walks of life, in any society around the world, is totally wild to me. 

But it makes sense – safety is first because if you’re not safe, what else can possibly matter?

If you’re not safe, the money you make doesn’t matter. The title you have doesn’t matter. The fun you want to enjoy doesn’t matter. 

How Do I Apply this to the Workplace?

And how can we apply this to the workplace? Easy – find who doesn’t feel safe and learn how to make them safe.

Not just physically safe, but mentally safe, emotionally safe, spiritually safe (though I understand the fragility and sensitivity of delving into spirituality with co-workers).

What this form of safety creates is a bond, a trust, that can’t be measured directly, but is certainly a magical ingredient that exists in the best teams in the world.

When safety exists and trust is formed, over long periods of time, the gap between the superficial truth (Tatemae) and the hidden truth (Honne) starts to shrink. 

People start to feel comfortable sharing the important details of their life with each other, as well as how they’re really thinking, knowing that they won’t be judged or have their thoughts or feelings used as blackmail in a competitive work environment.

Imagine how powerful this could be! 

As a leader, or equally as a fellow team member, you now can truly understand, empathize, and plan around someone else’s true potential and capability, in real-time.

Closing the Gap on Productivity through Emotional Safety

For example, if you know that Mary’s life is rough right now and she’s physically needing tenderness and space, then you’re better able to allocate the work she would normally do to someone else, or to pick up the slack yourself, or simply to bring her that cup of coffee or glass of water and come ready with a nice affirmation or analogy like, “we have no way of knowing what the future holds”, “new life comes from those who’ve passed,” “the best we can do is to use the information in front of us to make the best decision possible. Your whole life is going to be good. And I’m here for it.”

Little moments add up to big gains in the trust department. The more trust that there is in an organization, the more productive it can be. Trust between the leadership and staff, trust between the staff and other staff teams, trust between the Board and Leadership. 

Making your organization have that genuine feeling of safety can feel harder than pushing a mountain. If that’s how you feel, you might need to look inside, ask yourself whether you truly feel safe. If not, why? And, how can you make changes that could make you feel safer? 

In those questions, you may find parts of your character that lay dormant – courage to say what you think, compassion to truly listen and let someone feel however they feel, discipline to love yourself and fill up your cup with self-care before filling up everyone else’s cup. 

Honesty goes a long way.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D delivers a TedTalk in 2013, “How to Make Stress Your Friend”, explaining how her life’s work in Stress moved her to focus on perceived Stress. (Credit: TED)

Inside to Out – Once You’ve Found Your Safe Place As A Leader, Get Curious

Once you have found your safety inside of yourself, then start getting curious about how you can grow safety and hold space for people you directly work with. And then watch – see how those people act towards the people they interact with, and how in short order you can change culture. The power of true safety is such that its ripple effect is very strong. 

Then, it’s a deeper exploration of what’s happening inside yourself and inside your collective organization to further the power, strength, and natural covalent-like bonds of safety and trust. Even if people feel safe in their team now, how can you help all the teams feel safe with each other? 

Make it so your whole organization feels safe and views itself as one organism, one heartbeat. And remember, that even if you’re competing with another company or companies, you’re still part of one organization, one country, one species, and one world full of living creatures. 

The best at what they do respect their competition in victory, or defeat.

Final Thought(s)

Safety is the cornerstone of all organizations, teams, systems and ultimately, people in our world.

Physical safety is important, but we need to look inside of ourselves and also inquire about Mental Safety and Emotional Safety.

Look inside yourself first, then your immediate team, and then your organization as a whole.