Growing Transparency

I have heard from and talked with many people at all levels in companies and organizations who have expressed their desire for more transparency in their work environment, including their teams, throughout their company, and with the world at large. Most of them are aware that transparency—open disclosure without reserve or secrets–is an idea laced with dangers: too much being said in the wrong time and place, risks of being misinterpreted by those who are not in the flow of decisions and activity, and, of course, what you say being used against you, either overtly or covertly. With all that being said, many of these same people still feel that we err on the side of too little transparency. Without it, they argue, debate, opinion, and differences are minimized, at the expense of continuous organizational learning, the foundation of innovation and productivity. They claim it is necessary that they and their colleagues need to be more transparent in their perceptions of one another as well as in and across departments. Add to that a desire for their company to be more transparent about decisions and finances. A dangerous game, indeed!

Choosing to be transparent is, like most human choices, an individual choice. Many team leaders have tried to mandate it, but they have sooner or later learned that mandates typically turn out to be meaningless. So why don’t more individuals make this choice if they recognize the dangers but still think transparency is important? When I have asked more in-depth questions, I have come up with two reasons from my conversations with others: 1) people don’t feel as though they can “do it” on their own. In other words, if someone acts from a transparent base, they often look to others to join them and are sadly disappointed that it doesn’t happen; there are few things worse than to look around and find that no one is standing beside or behind you; 2) there is a subtle belief that while transparency could change things for the better, it most likely won’t change things at all. Things are just too complicated and beyond our control, so why take the risk? A general shared feeling is that no matter what we do, we can’t really make a difference.

Keys to Growing Transparency

In my opinion, transparency cannot be installed…it must be planted and cultivated. And, like anything that grows, it progresses on a continuum from fragile to more strength. Here are a few suggestions for how to start and maintain it.

  1. Think network: find those in your company that share a belief in more transparency and have active agreements about fostering transparency between yourselves;
  2. Practice transparency in order to perfect it; the dangers are real and must be understood so they can be managed or mitigated. This will allow the “conditions for success” that transparency needs to flourish and avoid causing harm to you and others;
  3. Conditions for success—there are a couple of major supports that transparency needs to grow strong.
    1. The first is that it must become an expectation for everyone. A great approach to this is to use it as a guideline for your team meetings. Set it then discuss what it means, particularly in the person-to-person realm.
    2. A second condition is to give and take feedback (an essential part of transparency) between people who work together. You can start with having your team give feedback to each member on what they are doing to help the team as well as hinder the team, starting with the team leader (see The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni).
    3. The third condition is to put an unwavering spotlight on it. Ask your team how at the end of each meeting how it is doing on transparency and how more can be done with it. Allow for discussion of what people are learning about it.
    4. The fourth condition is to recognize it…mentioning any examples of transparency in action and the beneficial effects it produces. Talk about the courage it takes and the rewards it offers on a consistent basis, keep it top of mind.

Changing our way of working together is a difficult and challenging undertaking. I hope that the ideas above are food for thought and actions that move in a positive direction toward more transparency.