Maybe it finally became clear (pun intended) that transparency had moved into the business mainstream when Glassdoor launched. Users flocked to the site for a chance to dish on what it’s really like to work at their organization, glimpse actual salary numbers, and shine a light in areas where employees are often left in the dark.
Aside from feeding the all-too-human tendency to consume gossip, Glassdoor was tapping into something more meaningful for employees everywhere: A desire to know what’s really going on where they work.
Glassdoor is only one example of how digital media, and particularly social media, changed the game for transparency. With a camera in every pocket and revealing truths just a post away, organizations are realizing that not only is it awfully hard to hide from the facts, being open and honest is actually good for business.
Studies show transparent workplaces are more productive, better at attracting and retaining employees, and more innovative. Transparency can also improve leaders. Think of it as a no-cost business improvement initiative.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
Business transparency can be defined in different ways: the process of being open, honest, and straightforward about various company operations, or a way of operating that creates more openness between managers and employees. Openness, however, doesn’t mean spilling the tea about everything to everyone, or opening up the servers for public consumption. There’s a right way and a wrong way to be transparent.
Transparency done right looks like:
Poorly executed transparency looks like:
The potential negative effects of being more transparent scare off too many organizations and leaders from being more open. Executed correctly, downside risks of transparency are virtually nil, and the upside for employees, operations and the business are tremendous. Here are some tips to help implement transparency and start enjoying its benefits.
“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”
Most companies are pretty good at sharing a company vision, mission statement, and goals — at least once a year or so. But how often are you letting employees know how the organization is measuring up to those goals? Perhaps your company delivers periodic financial updates. If so, keep it up, but don’t neglect check-ins around other goals, too: How is the company doing in its vision of inclusivity? Where are you in our drive to become more innovative? Not all goals and ideas are easily shared through numbers. And even when they are, numbers need context. Transparency isn’t just about information, it’s about understanding. And if the organization hasn’t met its goals, or is falling short in an area, talk about it! When employees understand where the gaps are, they’re more engaged and motivated to help fill them. Openly identifying problems also gets people thinking about solutions.
“It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Transparency isn’t just about what you’re willing to say, it’s also about what you’re willing to hear. For managers, it’s tempting to fall into making feedback a top-down process, with performance evaluations as a prime example. But feedback is much more productive when it can be a two-way street. If providing feedback only comes once or twice a year in your organization, and is always attached to promotions or salary increases, consider adding more frequent check-ins that aren’t tied to any milestones. Employees appreciate having an opportunity to share feedback and constructive criticism in a setting where there’s no worry that open discussion could affect the forward trajectory of their career. Put sessions on a regular schedule (even quarterly) and let the employee know that while you’ll share your thoughts, they’re welcome to bring their own, including questions and things they think could be improved. You may not like or agree with everything you hear, but you (and the organization) will be better for knowing what’s on the employee’s mind. When concerns and areas for improvement are brought up, note them and follow up in subsequent sessions, so the employee feels listened-to and each conversation can help step toward solutions or change.
“More important than the quest for certainty is the quest for clarity.”
In a story for the Harvard Business Review about the importance of workplace candor, the authors cite a meta-analysis of NASA research into the role of human error in airplane accidents. The analysis concluded that many incidents could be avoided by fostering an environment where pilots ask for input and the crew feels empowered to speak up. Even if speaking up isn’t a matter of life and death at your workplace, it can sometimes feel that way. Raising objections is scary. But organizations that dismiss questions or only seek out confirmatory feedback will, over time, lose out on important opportunities for innovation and course-correction, and may lose employee engagement and productivity..
Thoughtful challenges to the status quo are good. They force your organization to defend its position, think differently, and consider other angles. They also help employees understand why certain decisions are being taken. When questions can be answered, everyone feels more confident about the direction you’re headed. And if valid questions result in a shift, then the company may have just avoided disaster.
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
In the short term, sometimes transparency makes people and organizations more vulnerable. When you are open and honest, not everyone will like what they hear. They may disagree, even if the reasoning is sound and not personal. They could even use it against you (or your organization). But this vulnerability doesn’t last long. Over the long-haul, transparency makes an organization stronger. The organization is seen as more trustworthy, earning employee loyalty. Embracing the open, honest truth also inoculates organizations against outside attacks: “There’s nothing you can say about us we don’t know and haven’t already told ourselves.”
“The man who can keep a secret may be wise, but he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep.”
–Edgar Watson Howe
Transparency within the organization is vital, and once you have a taste of success with it (and see how much it strengthens employee engagement), you may be ready to let the outside world in a little more, too. You can extend transparency to your vendors, customers, and the public using many of the same strategies we’ve discussed: Sharing what the company stands for and why, explaining operational decisions and even opening up about company growth or shrink. The trust you establish with openness can nurture loyalty and confidence.
“There is nothing so strong or safe in an emergency of life as the simple truth.”
If you’ve already embraced vulnerability, this one isn’t so tough. Good transparency — for managers and organizations — means admitting when things haven’t gone right. Take ownership for mistakes, and when it’s appropriate, ask for help in developing solutions. Encourage employees to come forward when mistakes are made. This should not be confused with running a team where actions don’t have consequences. Instead, it acknowledges that things don’t always go as intended and mistakes can be opportunities to grow. When the situation is solved, extend transparency to sharing the lessons learned.
“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
Every company has knowledge-hoarders. If you’ve been in your job for a while, you may be one of them (no offense). If you have a lot of experience, there’s a lot in your head, maybe a lot you assume others know. There’s various reasons for knowledge-hoarding but, for many employees, it isn’t conscious. Recognizing and rewarding knowledge-sharing and transparency is one way to break the habit.
Transparency means sharing knowledge when you know it can benefit others and the business. Whether that’s historical knowledge of why a particular process has changed, or some insight a colleague in another silo could benefit from, it can only help others if you share it. Here at Blue Beyond, we have communication channels where team members are encouraged to ask for and share ideas as well as talk about the successes and opportunities discovered with each project. The point is to create transparency among different teams, so employees can discover areas of synergy and identify resources. Just make sure knowledge-sharing is done with purpose and intent, so the information is useful.
“I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way.”
With simple steps like these, you can begin fostering a transparent culture through everyday interactions and decisions. Each act of transparency demonstrates the kind of leader and organization you want to be and puts you on a path forward where the benefits to an open, honest workplace are easy to see.