Saturday, November 10, 2007

MANAGEMENT : Transparency as Strategy

By Patricia Wheeler

Is transparency just a well-meaning, rather soft idea, or does it have strategic value?

The dictionary defines transparency as “able to be seen through with clarity.” In the organizational world it means “free of deceit,” which translates into being “readable.” You don’t finish a conversation with a transparent leader wondering what they really meant, and what the implications are for you. You are clear about the underlying intent as well as the content of the message.

How does transparency differ from authenticity? Authentic leaders have a good match between intention and behavior…“say” and “do” are in sync. But you can be authentic without being transparent. Transparency refers to the deliberate behavior that is directed toward being readable.

Why is it so important? Because done well, transparency builds trust. And it eliminates the time-wasting behavior of trying to figure out what someone really thinks and wants.

I once coached a wonderful, authentic vice president who received feedback on her 360 that she intimidated her direct reports. She was shocked by this, because she thought she was communicating encouragement (she was clearly thinking encouraging thoughts), but her thoughts and intention were not transparent to her people. Part of her coaching agenda was to tell them that she wanted to get better at acknowledging them…and making sure that she checked back in with them to ensure that she was doing so. Team morale, and performance, improved.

Let’s be clear…transparency is no excuse for rude, hurtful or unprofessional behavior. And there sometimes can be too much of a good thing. People don’t need to know the details of your divorce or childhood traumas. The key is to make sure that you use god common sense and transmit information that adds value to the workplace.

Why is transparent leadership especially important now?

Our world is growing more complex by the day. We are barraged with information and we must intersect with an increasing number of stakeholders in different locations and cultures. More often than not, leaders operate through influence rather than direct control. Driving collaboration, internal accountability, and self-direction requires a different skill set than in traditional command and control settings.

A culture of transparency breeds a more agile and engaging organization. Companies who don’t promote and model this sort of culture are missing a huge strategic advantage. And what is this advantage? In two words, employee engagement.

Of the 25 top levers of engagement that the Corporate Research Council identified, several directly relate to leader transparency. These include managers demonstrating honesty, clearly articulating organizational goals, accepting responsibility for failures as well as successes, and clearly caring about employee well-being. And why should we care about engagement? Simply put, highly engaged employees have been shown to be 20% more productive. And people want to work for managers they can read and trust.

So, If people trust you, they will listen better to you.

More trust leads to less organizational “static.”

As static and resistance decrease, speed and precision are enhanced.

Well-executed transparency can set the stage for innovation and cross-silo collaboration.

If transparency is so effective, why don’t more people practice it?

Many leaders believe that showing any vulnerability will make them look weak and ineffective, resulting in a loss of respect. In our coaching engagements, we use the “FeedForward” process, which is a great example of modeling transparency. We ask leaders tell their stakeholders what they’re trying to get better at and enlist their help in this effort. In my experience coaching many leaders, I have never seen an instance where revealing how you’re trying to get better led to less respect. In fact, the usual result is increased trust.

Transparent communication is particularly important during times of great stress and change. We’re always looking for anchors of trust and we want to make sense of the world, especially during times of disruptive change. If you are not readable, people will “make it up”…which usually results in their imagining that things are worse than they are. So an important part of modeling transparency is to tell people what it is you don’t know, as well as what you do know. This may require some courage.

From a coach’s perspective, here are some suggestions to enhance transparency:

- Know yourself. Get feedback on whether you tend to share too much or too little information? Find out how readable you are to others.

- Clarify your values. You are working with other humans, and we are all driven by our core values and emotions. So let people know what is really important to you.

- Take regular reflection breaks…make sure you are consciously and continuously making good choices about how and what you do and don’t share…and why.

- Be aware of cultural differences in what constitutes a good level and pace of transparency. Cultural differences vary by geography and within organizations.

- Build your muscle: practice transparent communication with your coach or confidantes to develop and hone your skills.

Practicing transparent leadership can help you get even more honest with yourself (and others) about what engages you and what turns you off, what you stand for and why it’s important to you. Being clear about your values and drivers can put you “in the driver’s seat” for having an even more successful (and by the way, happier) career…and life.

Copyright 2007, Leading News
Patricia Wheeler is an executive coach and consultant who helps smart people become better leaders. As Managing Partner in the Levin Group LLC, she has spent 15 years consulting to organizations and coaching senior leaders and their teams. You may contact Patricia by E-mail at or by telephone at 404 377-9408.

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