As a parent, I apply a few principles to raising my son (currently six years old). One of them goes more or less as follows. I know he’s going to mess up sometime – he’s a great boy, but that day will come. When kids – especially teenagers – mess up, they have one of two reactions: the first group will say, “Please don’t call my dad!”. The second group will say, “Please call my dad.” I want my son to be in the second group. For me, this is an example of transparency – the same transparency we want to create in the workplace.

Transparency is one of the principles required to enable effective strategy execution. Why? In short, knowledge is power. The more knowledge we provide to those around us, the better chance they have of contributing to what the organisation is trying to achieve. We delve into this a bit deeper in this article.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States

Transparency can mean a lot of things

Transparency is not a simple concept. Some of the complications arise when we ponder which elements of a business should be made transparent. Elements could range from company metrics (high-level, macro) to individual feedback (detailed, individual). And anything in-between! Major successes, recent results, failures, learnings, etc. Should all of this be made transparent? Some of them could seem obvious to publish internally to everyone; others need more consideration. The point is that there’s no simple answer.

Another complication arises when we consider at what point should we be transparent. If a regulator finds possible misconduct, at what point do we communicate it to all employees? If a leadership team brainstorm different elements of possible strategic avenues to follow, at what point do we talk about it at an all-hands meeting? Communicating too soon might create unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety in employees, with minimal potential benefit. But, again, there’s no simple answer.

The positive effects of transparency, however, can’t be overstated. Talking about learnings creates growth opportunities. Communicating the company’s strategic goals create the possibility of teamwork. Teams talking to each other decreases the likelihood of duplication of effort. Transparency will breed trust, it will foster engagement, and it will empower employees.

Holding these two elements in check – the complexities vs the benefits of transparency – takes experience. It means that all filters can’t go out the window – messages have to be tailored to audiences, partly so that it’s easier to receive and interpret. However, we’ve seen cases where “protecting the employees” is used as a reason for not being transparent – or an excuse. The solution to this is not to be less transparent, nor is it to be more transparent. Instead, it’s in what you value as an organisation.

Why transparent goals are more important than ever

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a goal management methodology used to pursue a company’s most important strategic goals. Because we assist in implementing and coaching on OKRs, we talk about transparency in the context of strategic goals. Transparency in this environment has become more relevant as teams organise themselves to enable decentralised decision-making – the need for faster decision-making and more agile organisations is undeniable. (To find out more – specifically how an outcomes-based mindset can contribute – download our whitepaper here.)

If you want employees to contribute to the company’s strategic goals, you have to give them the information to do so.

We recognise that not all companies operate this way. For example, some companies genuinely value openness. This means they give open feedback, doors are open, and leaders share their mistakes openly. It works well when balanced with other values – such as “assume the best”. This means that open and direct communication can’t be used to progress political agendas or misinterpreted as critique because it must be balanced by “assume the best”. (Be wary of companies that value honesty or integrity. These should be a given, not a value.)

Put differently: there’s a transparency paradox. The more transparent the workplace, the more privately people behave. But only if there is no culture of trust, no value of “assuming the best”.

Transparency paradox

Standing in the way of transparency

If transparency is a problem, transparency usually isn’t the problem.

Culture is the problem.

People with political agendas are the problem.

An environment of mistrust is the problem.

Fear of healthy conflict is the problem.

We’ve worked with companies that focus on creating an environment of care and growth within teams. Healthy culture is an essential part of successful strategy execution. One side of strategy execution is a robust strategy translated into short term goals (OKRs) that a broad audience can consume. The other side of the coin is a healthy team culture and leadership practices. (We’ve worked with Legitimate Leadership, who do great work in this space.)

Transparency is easy. Communicate more, communicate more often, and communicate through more channels.

Overcoming politics, however, is not easy. That’s an ingrained cultural element in the business that must be addressed.

Transparency itself costs nothing – except egos!

We believe in workspaces where employees can bring their whole selves to work. They don’t have to hide who they are, where they can be real, vulnerable, and human. To enable this will require the leadership to take the first step. Leaders need to be real, vulnerable and human first. Next, they need to share information liberally. Not providing individuals with information will hamper the progress of the strategy but also causes mistrust – it makes individuals feel they aren’t trusted, which creates a downward spiral. Less information shared causes less trust which causes less information to be shared.

For practical ways to address transparency, click here.


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