Transparency is in vogue now. Dangled as the cunning bait to win over skeptical consumers or cynical voters, transparency promises to vanquish backroom chicanery, dispel fear and expunge the value of lying. Savvy organizations scheme to make transparency part of their game plan for transparency is the cornerstone of trust.
If transparency is the star player in an organizational culture why do so many leaders bench it at game time, instead fielding a team of obfuscation, secrecy, clandestineness and outright lying? Sometimes it's a ham-handed attempt at confidentiality. Wanton transparency, the sharing of everything to everyone is often known by another name: gossip. There are times when the cards must be held close.
When coaches devise their game plan they need to exercise nitpicking precision with their communication. There is a when and a how. Communicate the plan haphazardly and loose lips will sink the ship. Not sharing information or sharing it too late makes the team look like green recruits when the whistle blows.
So then transparency requires some finesse. In the simplest of terms, transparency is honesty in sharing information verbally and in writing. The chief executive needs to share information openly and honestly with the right people at the right time. His/her management team must follow the leader and share information in the same way keeping in mind that stakeholders hate surprises.
Transparency is often spelled out as an organizational value but when this value is habitual and not lying dormant in a policy and procedure manual it becomes part of the culture. Creating this cultural transformation of transparency requires a purposeful and methodical system-wide process.
When an organization makes a mistake, transparency is a calming balm to owners and impacted employee(s) and/or customer(s). Denying or hiding the truth doesn't work. Truth has a nasty way of digging out from under the rubble and can get very angry in the process. If there is an incident involving an employee, whether it is an accident or a disciplinary issue, there is a balance between what can legally and ethically be shared versus transparent communication (again, finesse). Sometimes the executive leader is unable to disclose facts, but s/he can be transparent in saying s/he isn't able to share the details because of confidentiality or whatever the case may be.
Being transparent with an organization's balance sheet can help employees understand their role in a dog-eat-dog marketplace, inspire them to work harder, understand their role in the grand scheme of things and cut management some slack. It makes employees part of the team.
In The Economist's News Book, Antonino Vaccaro and Joan Fontrodona wrote an article entitled "Academic View: The myth of corporate transparency". In this article they clarify that customers are conveying to companies that is isn't more information they are interested in getting, but rather useful and trustworthy information about the company and its product and services.
It is easier to pump out data than to form messages into useful information. Carpet bombing stakeholders with salvos of confusing statistics is not effective transparency. People are seeking relevance in information from and about companies, which serves to increase trust. Building trust strengthens an organization in every way. Here are five key reasons for developing a transparent culture:
- Ability to sleep better at night!
- Integrity of leadership and the organization
- Increased growth due to gaining customer trust, loyalty and desire to "spread the good word" about your organization
- Increased trust of leadership to employees and stakeholders
- Increased interest of employees to help the organization succeed
While it takes time and effort to shift the culture, the benefits of transparency outweigh the risks. You've read the why. Here are the "how's"; seven things leaders can do to create a transparent organizational culture:
- Define what a transparent culture is in contrast to the current culture. If the new culture isn't vividly and favorably described, no one including you will be interested in doing the work to achieve it.
- You must own the commitment to shifting the culture and understand that it takes time. It might take up to 18-24 months or longer depending on the size of the organization, the geographic coverage of the organization and the health status of the current culture. And you need to stay committed and involved until the culture is shifted. Otherwise inertia takes over and shifts the culture back to the initial state.
- Align the management team around the new culture and have total buy in. If there are outliers who don't agree with moving toward a transparent culture, help them with an exit strategy. If someone who doesn't buy in stays, the culture won't shift in their areas of responsibility, giving mixed messages to the rest of the organization.
- Foster three phrases when you talk with employees: 1) I'll tell you what I can tell you, 2) I'll tell you if I can't tell you, and 3) I'll tell you if I don't know something. Following this works. Employees over time trust that you do as you say.
- With major changes and events in the organization, take the time to create and follow a communication plan that includes the key messages and tactics for messaging. Developing and sharing this plan with executive leaders, enables consistency in messaging both internally and externally to the organization.
- People tend to share improvement ideas when leaders are transparent. Take this feedback seriously and actually implement the ideas when you can. Follow-up with appropriate and timely communication about what you have done to eliminate a problem or improve a service or product.
- Don't ever compromise the truth and don't tolerate direct reports and others who do.
Accept the challenge to evaluate your culture and ensure it is consistently transparent or transform it!