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The Do’s and Don’ts of Leadership Transparency

In the physical world, light passes through a transparent object without scattering – clearly and cleanly. Light encountering a translucent object passes through, but is diffused and distorted. And when light hits an opaque object, it literally “hits the wall,” and nothing passes through.

When we take that metaphor to leadership and communication, we also have three primary states:

  • Leaders can tell it all with no holds barred (transparent).
  • They can be a bit more selective and shadowy, telling some, but not all (translucent).
  • Or, they can be an unyielding fortress, with no information forthcoming, informing on a need to know basis and using their best poker face (opaque).

The social use of the word transparency implies openness, clear communication, frankness and accountability.  For example, leaders can be open about finances (open books), the external environment (the competitive pressures we face), internal plans (where we are taking the organization), performance (how do I view the quality of your work) or their own inner state of feelings (how am I personally reacting).

Too many times I see leaders withhold, mystify, or obscure information with intent. Some do it to make their work look much more complex than it really is, thereby magnifying the value of their own efforts. Others put a shiny veneer on a stinky mess – either to minimize the mess, or based on a belief that others can’t handle the information straight up.  I’ve also seen the great extent to which some position work that is over budget and on a schedule much better than the reality – rather than coming clean and doing the work to get things back on track.

Juxtapose that to leaders who speak clearly, openly and candidly (or transparently). Leaders who do that well are able to:

  • Build trust by speaking honestly and openly
  • Demonstrate trust – by believing that others are capable to handle the truth, no matter how difficult
  • Build personal credibility – by being person of their word
  • Fully inform in order to make better decisions
  • Provide the context and reasoning used to frame decisions and take needed actions
  • Allay fears, concerns, and the resultant social churn when people are not fully informed (and consequently make things up)
  • Show the way forward clearly
  • Allow others to deal in reality vs. protecting them from it

Many of the situations that demand transparency are exactly the times that leaders might prefer to run and take cover. This is the easier short term path; far less difficult than having the tough conversation that doesn’t always feel good but can make the group and the organization better in the long term. Situations that demand transparency include when:

  • There are changes looming that impact the group
  • Customers are unhappy and the group needs to do better
  • The bigger picture is fuzzy and not well defined
  • Tough decisions are being wrestled with
  • Performance is lackluster
  • Competitors are eating your lunch
  • Unpopular policies are in the works

There are small things leaders can do day-in and day-out that demonstrate transparency. These include:

  • Being willing to answer questions honestly – even the tough ones
  • Sharing personal feelings or reactions
  • Saying “I don’t know” when you truly don’t know
  • Sharing an accurate status of progress, even though it may be less than expected
  • Owning your own contribution to a situation (positive or negative)

Given all I’ve said – should leaders adopt a practice of 100% transparency? Not in my book. Here are times that I believe leaders should not be transparent:

  • The obvious: when the information is confidential
  • When the information has the potential to damage others
  • When it becomes TMI (too much information) that is not needed, irrelevant or burdensome
  • When you are in a highly emotional state
  • If you have a hidden agenda
  • When the group is in a highly emotional or distracted state
  • When the information is unsubstantiated (gossip)
  • When the information does not help your group understand purpose, direction, or help them do their work better
  • If it violates an agreed upon intentional cascading of information within the larger organization

What You Need to Master

How we communicate is always a choice – moment by moment, situation by situation. Conscious and skilled leaders ask these questions and then determine the degree of transparency they choose:

  1. What is the nature of the information?
  2. What do I know about my audience?
  3. What is my personal inner state?
  4. What is the best action I can take to help my group move forward?

So, I’m curious. Can you share some examples of where transparency has worked and/or where it has backfired? What have you learned about transparency in your personal leadership?

And finally, for those that want more – you’ll find an excellent white paper (PDF) by Karen Walker and Barbara Pagano here.

Three quotes that sum things up:

We cannot change the truth, but the truth can change us.

The truth may hurt for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.

The greatest advantage of speaking the truth is that you never have to remember what you said.

4 Responses

  1. During my years as CEO of large companies I have been increasingly aware of the benefits or rather the necessity of openess and well planned communication. Successfull change management is built on openess. I have also learnt that the CEO her/himself needs to meet and inform/discuss with all employees. Everyone should have the same message, the same answers to questions and the same tone of voice.This normally is time consuming in big corporations – but so be it.. Member of the exetuvive board should accompany the CEO when in their respective area of responsibility, multi level communication. In this way all will have the same picture of changes and respect for the management team will be enhanced

  2. I truly appreciate this article. When I got to the section that discusses when NOT to be transparent, my attention was caught by the “when the group is highly emotional or distracted state”. When you are working with a group who stays in this place of high emotion and distraction, there comes a time when you simply have to break into the situation with transparency- and really for your own sanity! And, when the group continues in that state and the leader doesn’t drive a sustainable change and trust, it’s time to move on.

    1. Totally agree. Timing is everything, With high emotion or distraction – the leader must first help the group regain focus and clarity. At times that happens with the leader exhibiting the maturity, steadiness and calmness to talk about what is happening and what she/he observes is going on in the group.

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