Being a transparent leader
If you can’t see where you’re going, getting lost is easy. In previous blog posts, I’ve explored how the values of trust and respect, forming the basic building blocks of a successful organization, can be cultivated. There is also a third key value that differentiates a successful company from an average one. How to be a transparent leader.
Trust, respect, and transparency form a trilogy of core values needed to build successful teams. This post analyses why being a transparent leader is important and provides practical ways on how to improve transparency in your organization.
The link between trust and transparency
Transparency, as a value, is about being open, honest, visible and accessible as a leader. When you have a transparent leader in a team or organization, there is automatically trust. There seems to be an undeniable relationship between transparency and trust.
The less trust and respect in your organization, the more transparency you need. The more transparency you have, the more people will trust and respect you.
Yet, often leaders remove themselves from the teams they lead, focusing on communicating with the executive team and customers only, often neglecting the operational teams. The reasons for this separation are justified and there are as many benefits as disadvantages. Yet, I believe that the most influential leaders are those that are visible and accessible.
A transparent leader is an inspirational leader.
A leader is like the brain of the organization, being at the center of strategy and decision making. A well-functioning brain communicates to all the parts of the body in a complex network of neurons and neurotransmitters. When there is a communication breakdown in the body, disease occurs.
Similarly, a well-functioning organization has a leader that communicates well to all parts of the organization. The messages are processed and sent to the intended recipients on time, who in turn are able to receive and act on it. Many organizations, though, experience a breakdown in communication to some extent, and without being able to see where this breakdown is, it’s hard to resolve it. Transparency is key.
How do you cultivate transparency?
Transparency requires vulnerability and looking critically at yourself as much as at the organization you lead. Although the steps are relatively straightforward and easy, practicing it, however, requires a lot of courage.
Here’s what it takes to be a transparent leader:
1. Be honest
Being honest is easy when there is good news to share. The promotion, the growth, the financial results after a good year. Staying honest when the news is bad, not so much. No one likes being the messenger of bad news, but it is always better to know than to be kept in the dark.
A transparent leader values honesty above everything else. He practices compassion and empathy to soften the often hurtful truth, but never, ever hides the truth from its people, no matter how hard it is to deliver.
As a leader, aspire to be honest in all cases. When, however, someone asks you a question you are not prepared to answer, honestly admit that you don’t feel comfortable answering. Don’t avoid the subject, and don’t ever lie about it or give half-truths intentionally.
2. Be open and accessible
Being a leader is hard, as it often involves a lot of criticism. It’s easier to avoid or ignore criticism than to listen to the complaints and questions. Transparency means you open yourself up to criticism, making yourself vulnerable in favor of the needs of the people you serve.
It takes as much courage to hear how you have failed as a leader as what it takes to tell someone else bad news.
Always give an opportunity for people to ask questions and be sure to carefully listen. By listening to the people, you earn their respect, while providing an opportunity to mitigate a risk or solve a problem before it’s too late.
Provide for a company-wide channel where employees are invited to express their concerns or ask questions and be sure to read it and respond in a positive and open way.
3. Ask questions and show interest
The manager of the past was he who knew the most answers. The leaders of the future, are those who ask the most powerful questions.
Your role as a leader is not to know all the answers, but to have access to all the resources that can provide the answers. The transparent leader engages with their people regularly and asks relevant and empowering questions.
Show interest by participating in Gemba walks, a concept from lean production where the management team actively observes how people do their work, where it happens. Show interest in the people, while gaining a better understanding of the difficulties on the floor.
4. Confront difficult situations
Most people avoid conflict more than anything else. Whenever there is the slightest risk of angering your superior or looking uninformed, most people will keep quiet or say they agree, even though they disagree wholeheartedly.
That means a lot of great ideas lost, a lot of solutions unharnessed, and a lot of unnecessary rework as a result of misunderstandings. Most of all, it means non-committed workers performing unnecessary tasks to keep the peace, often knowing that it’s not in the best interest of the company, but too scared to speak up.
We can learn from Mandela how to be more transparent and make it safe for employees to express their opinions, even if it conflicts with their own views.
Mandela has always been known to be a good listener, but when someone disagreed with him, he listened even more carefully. He used disagreement as a tool to gain more understanding and awareness, realizing that the opposing view might provide a broader view than he already had. He focused on looking for connections and how he can learn, not being right.
There is no right or wrong. There is only more or less information available. A more transparent leader invites disagreement and conflict in a functional way, listening intently to opposing perspectives.
5. Provide access to information
The benefits of making information available far outweigh the risks, even though there are indeed risks to take into consideration before deciding whether information should be made readily available or not. The more information you have, the better decisions you are able to make. Being able to make better decisions, on the other hand, leads to less stress.
Another huge benefit of making information available is that it results in higher accountability while being fairer. More information earlier also allows for earlier re-alignment and correction if it is required. That translates to cost and time savings in the long run.
Be a more transparent leader and have frequent communication sessions with the entire organization, not only the executive team. Allow for questions to be asked, and provide the answers to those questions.
Have a dedicated area available where people can access information, like a wiki or shared repository, however, be sure to keep it simple. Maintain the contents and clean up and any unused items regularly to keep them relevant.
Not finding the information that you need is as bad as not having it at all.
6. Involve people in decision-making
The last critical step to building a transparent organization is also one of the most difficult. The question of whether to involve people in decision making or not.
It has been proven in many studies that people involved in decisions are more engaged and committed. It’s not always possible to involve everyone, therefore good judgment is needed, but a transparent leader will always involve people in decision making.
If it is not possible to have a personal discussion with everyone involved, provide a meaningful choice. Never dictate one option only, and don’t give some people options and others not. Be consistent and fair in how you make decisions, and to what degree you involve people in the decision-making process.
There are many reasons why leaders separate themselves from their team members. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll be seen as less authoritative, or maybe you’re scared of criticism. Maybe you are an introvert or simply don’t have enough time in the day.
Whatever the reasons, one of the key building blocks of functional and successful teams and organizations, is the level of transparency in the organization, and is a transparent leader. Increasing your transparency increases trust, resulting in a more productive workplace.
Image courtesy of Depositphotos
With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.