Transparency in the Workplace

When you assess the effectiveness of leadership in an organization, there are a handful of parameters you seek to evaluate:

  • Trust: Do employees believe what they are being told? Do they have confidence in the integrity of their leadership?
  • Engagement: Is there evidence that employees exert discretionary effort in service of company goals on a consistent basis?
  • Retention: Do tenured and talented employees, with clear options to shop their skill sets elsewhere, remain?

All three of these indicators (and several others) are a function of transparent communication. This article will examine transparency and how to develop or improve it within your sphere of influence.

What Does Workplace Transparency Look Like?

Leadership is an attempt to influence. Power is influence potential. In that context, you can’t effectively lead without power. Power comes in two forms:

  • Legitimate or Position Power
  • Personal or the Power of Trust

Generally speaking, Directive styles of leadership leverage Legitimate Power, while Collaborative styles leverage Personal Power. When you think about it, it is almost impossible to effectively execute a collaborative or participative approach to leadership without a common bond of trust (i.e., if people are scared, they tend to tell leaders what they think those leaders want to hear, as opposed to what may really be going on!).

Transparency in the workplace is the manifestation of trust. It is evidenced by employees confidently telling those in management the essence of their reality, regardless of whether that news confirms or challenges convention.

Why Is Workplace Transparency Important?

So, in essence, transparency is the fulcrum of trust. And trust is the foundation for any lasting and meaningful relationship (organizational or personal). Furthermore, it is comparatively easy to be transparent when you have good news to report.  It is another thing altogether when you have difficult news. But, perhaps contrary to human intuition, transparently communicating difficult news can have a profoundly positive impact on how much others trust you.

Greater Employee Engagement and Retention

Employee engagement is enhanced through transparency. When someone with legitimate power provides insight into an unforeseen problem that is putting goal achievement at risk, the resultant effect can be both energizing and empowering.

At face value, employees understand there is rarely a straight line of ascent between vision and achievement. Most journeys towards goals of significance are iterative. And transparent communication on the ebbs and flows of those journeys provides not only the opportunity but also the invitation, for employees to own those challenges and have an inclusive voice in developing solutions.

Over time that practice is a strong contributor to retaining top talent. All other things being equal (or at least approximating equal), people like to work for bosses and organizations that allow them to pursue mastery of their craft. It enhances their workplace dignity, self-esteem and sense of worth.

Effective Collaboration

In Situational Leadership® terms imagine how much easier determining an employee’s readiness to perform a particular task becomes when that employee tells you exactly where they are and what they need:

  • “I have done this at least 100 times and would love to do it again!”
  • “I have no idea what I’m doing here, and really need some help.”
  • “I can do this, but can’t you find somebody else?”

At a minimum, effective collaborative leadership is accelerated significantly when transparency is on active display.

Increased Trust and Enhanced Brand Reputation

Transparency is contagious! We all know by now that the reputation your organization has with its customers is an inside-out function. The more management tells the hard truth to employees and takes steps to engage them in solutions, the more frontline employees do the same with their customers (with similar results).

Consider organizations like Nordstroms, L.L. Bean, Caterpillar Tractor, Marriott and a handful of others that have been industry leaders for decades in large part through their commitment to involving their customers in challenges of significance.

Company Growth

Are talented employees willing to take less compensation to work for an organization they can trust? According to the Josh Bersin Company and a recent study they completed on Global Workforce Intelligence, yes!

Here are two of the primary factors they identified in their Ideal Organization project (what kind of organization do people want to work for?):

  1. Trust in Management: People want to work with and for Senior Executives who consistently display high integrity.
  2. Feedback and Feedforward: People want to know where they stand, and what they have to do to get better as often as possible and as specific as possible!

How to Increase Transparency in the Workplace

So, transparency is an important factor in long-term organizational success (massive understatement!). What can you do to enhance it with those you influence on a day-to-day basis? Here are three practices to consider:

  1. Prepare for It: When you ask people what they think, in the absence of a positive history, some/many may be reticent to tell you. This is absolutely the case if your culture is transitioning from one that has been largely governed by Legitimate Power to one that aspires to rely more on Personal Power. Your initial efforts to engage others and foster transparency may not be immediately acknowledged, accepted or reciprocated. On the flip side of that coin, you may well open up the floodgates of transparency and receive answers or input you simply can’t take action upon. As such, think through the questions you will ask. Perhaps limit their degrees of freedom so that you are discussing dynamics you can impact as a leader.
  2. Model It: Admit mistakes. Explain why you have pursued one path versus another as a leader. Experiment with vulnerability without sacrificing your credibility. For example:

“… I made what I thought was a very difficult decision. Quite frankly, I may have been wrong. Here’s what I was thinking. On one hand we had “this.” On the other, we had “that.”  I would be interested in hearing candidly and transparently from the team what you thought about the decision and the factors I prioritized to make it.”

Net: Net, if you want to see increased transparency from others, you have to show them what it looks like.

  1. Balance it: A transparent culture does not translate to the absence of privacy in an organizational setting. As a matter of fact, an article published by Ethan Bernstein in The Harvard Business Review (The Transparency Trap) points out the importance of establishing that shared state of equilibrium with your team/department/division.

Questions like:

  • “What do we talk about?”
  • “What’s off limits?”
  • “With whom do we share the information we discuss?”
  • “Etc.”

Can go a long way to establishing the parameters necessary for productive transparency.

Improve Workplace Transparency With Guidance From The Center For Leadership Studies

The Center for Leadership Studies is the global home of the Situational Leadership® Model. This model has been helping leaders, around the world and across industries, effectively influence others for over 50 years. It has always been “a follower-driven model.” And we wholeheartedly believe that is the primary reason Situational Leadership® is more relevant today than ever before!

In keeping with this article, we have designed our flagship offerings (Situational Leadership® Essentials and Situational Performance Ownership™) to provide leaders at all levels with an appreciation for the value of transparency in the context of leadership. After all, and as we all are well aware:

  • Leadership has never been something you do to other people—it is something you do with them!

And Situational Leadership® continues to help leaders do just that!