Fear has become, unfortunately, a regular emotion at work. How often do you feel afraid of sharing your thoughts because of what might happen to you? Have your colleagues stopped sharing their ideas after being censored over and over?
I say this from direct experience.
“We cannot discuss these things at work,” I’ve been told several times when running change leadership workshops. “We are afraid of getting fired.” Surprisingly enough, these same people have no evidence of people being fired for speaking up.
What’s the root cause of this seemingly unfounded fear at work? Clearly, something important is missing: trust and a safe space. And that’s where transparency comes to play.
You cannot not be transparent
Building on Paul Watzlawick’s axiom, “One cannot not communicate,” one cannot not be transparent. Everything one does is a message: activity or inactivity, words or silence — all are messages communicating something.
Trust can help a team cope with adversity and, instead of blaming each other, find a solution together. Building trust requires transparency, not just in how you communicate but, most importantly, in how you behave. Transparent behaviors provide clarity about your intentions and clearly “communicate” that you are not hiding anything.
Hard to build easy to lose
Trust is a very volatile asset. It takes a long time to make some gains but can be lost with one simple act. Seven times Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong, is a perfect example of this. He lost trust not because of doping but because he lied. Using his own words: “The story was so perfect for so long. It’s this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.” If you have to choose, it’s better to be human than to be caught lying, pretending you are perfect.
I see many leaders building a perfect image and caring too much about other’s appreciation. Robin Sharma, author of Leader Who Had No Title, says it better: “You can be a changemaker. You can be liked by everyone around you. You don’t get to do both.“ To operate under the principle of transparency, you are required to be exposed in front “of the crowd.” Building a transparent culture is a painful journey.
The 6 lessons I learned
Transparency is critical when dealing with change. Looking for a smarter and less painful way to work has required a lot of experimentation. In my last organization, we wanted to build a more transparent culture. We wanted to leave no room for misunderstanding, not just of the changes we were implementing but, most importantly, the why. Here are some lessons from that journey.
1. If they know, they will care
Sharing results regularly has helped us bring accountability. Many organizations shy away from sharing how they are doing. They fear people would ask for salary increases when things are great or that they might fly away when business is being challenged. We want a team that feels part of the success as well as jumps right into action when things are getting hard.
2. Curate, don’t filter
Picture perfect organizations don’t drive engagement. Our monthly all-agency meetings originally happened to share news and updates. As they progressed, they became a space for open conversation, where different voices can tell their (not so perfect) stories. When I asked Freddy Motta, one of our team members, to share his experience with self-organization, I didn’t check what he was going to say. I actually listened to his presentation at the same time that everyone else. It’s not always easy to avoid filtering, but it definitely helps build transparency.
3. To show you’re serious, take risks
It’s harder for people to question your intentions when you take transparency to the extreme. I could tell I was about to do something risky, when my close supporters told me I was crazy. I decided to share the names of those who have been awarded a salary increase. I could tell by the faces in the room that everyone felt uncomfortable, especially the “lucky ones” who felt on the spot. I didn’t just share who the awardees were but also the criteria behind it. And, most importantly, how budget limitations required us to pick those who performed better among everyone who met the criteria.
4. Open dialogue minimizes gossip
Encouraging a team to discuss tensions face-to-face is a road full of bumps. When we started our Creative Critique sessions, what was supposed to be a space to provide feedback on the work we’ve produced wasn’t well received. It took some iteration, including tweaking how to run those meetings, to create an open dialogue where those who received feedback on their work wouldn’t feel attacked. Same thing happened with the Action Meetings. It took time for people to realize how good it was to express their tensions in an open fashion. Even though they might feel uncomfortable, adult conversations are more effective than corridor gossip.
5. A culture of transparency is infectious
Smaller acts on a daily basis can bring transparency into everyday behaviors. Slack was a great tool in that sense. We used it to share feedback of a Creative Critique session or letting the team know someone will be working from home, taking a day off or arriving late to work because their baby didn’t sleep at all.
6. Building transparency takes time
Building a culture of change requires a cadence, not just one-offs. Going back to those monthly meetings, they felt more like a monologue at the very beginning. We had to purposefully motivate people to participate. “This meeting is meant for you,” I kept repeating. “The questions you don’t ask, the tensions we don’t discuss, will keep coming back to us again and again.” Luckily, we gained traction; we might have actually opened Pandora’s Box.
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From unfulfilled promises to frustrations or disagreements, anything can happen when you open the floor in a transparent culture. As a leader, you have to address every tension, especially those you don’t have an answer for. Being put on the spot is not easy. And this applies to everyone on the team: those who bring up the touchy issues and the ones who need to address them.
What can I improve today?
I’ve been lucky enough to lead several organizations, plus I have provided advice to hundreds of clients during my career. The good news is, though I’ve learned a lot, there are so many things I still don’t know. And that keeps me moving. Every morning when I wake up, I ask myself: “What can I improve today? What new behavior can I experiment with?”
Transparency, like change, requires a strong commitment. But it pays off. When participation and curiosity increase among your team — including challenging you as a leader — it’s a sign that transparency is turning into a virtuous cycle.
And I’m OK taking the blame for that.