As the proverb goes, honesty is the best policy. In mid-market or larger firms, embracing honesty translates to a culture of transparency at every level of the organization.

Baking transparency into your people strategy has deep and lasting benefits; some financial, some legal, and some cultural, all of which manifest into positive PR. However, I would never say that embracing transparency is a simple process—it is harder than you think. It requires rigorous reforms in every area of the business.

With that said, there’s a growing expectation that today’s companies are making an effort to be more transparent, and we can all start somewhere. Here are five key ways you can build transparency into your corporate culture.

Stop Hiding Negative Truths

Imagine you’re taking a drive to another state with a group of colleagues. You’re driving, and as everyone chats around you, you notice something is going wrong with the car’s steering. You have a choice to make in this moment. Would you keep the problem to yourself and carry on, or would you say something to the others in the car?

If you continue driving, you’re excluding the only people who can help you from decisions that affect them. What if someone else noticed, but assumed you had it under control? What if someone else knows how to diagnose the issue? What if another passenger knows where the nearest mechanic is?

When we keep bad news and unfortunate truths hidden, we’re telling our teams they can’t help us. Ironically, they’re the only ones who can. Provided we frame these issues as business-wide objectives, rather than admissions of defeat, negative truths are capable of sparking innovative thinking and a productive sense of urgency. We must never underestimate our team’s ability to find solutions to big problems, as long as they understand the scope.

Give People the Tools to Decide for Themselves

If the line managers need to approve or request everything their department does, you’re designing bottlenecks into your processes. You’re also sending a message to other team members that they can’t be trusted to act in good faith.

Instead, have leaders create a scope of approval by defining what their teams can do without direct permission or instruction. This scope should also be specific about what is out of bounds, and at what point a project does need to pass through an approval process. Teams with more agency are able to get more done, and empowering them creates a healthier dynamic with their reporting manager.

This also applies to professional development. If leaders have a plan for a talented individual, and that person is not involved in the planning, the organization is setting themselves up to collide with their star talent’s interests. Engage top talent in conversations about where they hope to see themselves develop. Putting talented people where you want them, rather than where they want to be, will make their job offers from competitors seem all the more appealing.

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Re-define Sensitive Information

There’s a difference between transparency and reckless exposure—a window still needs glass panes. However, the line between an organization’s confidential and public information needs to be thoughtfully defined.

When it comes to which pieces of information are kept confidential and which are not, the reasons behind your choices matter. Some are obvious; there is no appropriate time to share your people’s social security numbers.

However, there may be certain information that is riskier to keep confidential than to make public, particularly as the political climate changes around us. For instance, with hot topics like pay equity gaining momentum, you may want to think carefully about whether pay transparency is a more strategic move in the long term. Of course, the answer will depend entirely on the complex circumstances of your business. 

Encourage Candid Conversations

Candor is a cornerstone of people strategy in firms throughout NYC and across the globe, not to mention the subject of umpteen leadership books. Steve Jobs had such a belief in candid honesty that the concept of “fearless feedback” is a pillar of Apple’s culture that lives on to this day. Whether you use Jobs’ term, or you call it “radical candor”, or something else, it comes back to offering constructive, honest,  feedback—100% of the time.

There’s a reason people write so much about candor—it’s hard. Few people enter the workforce with the confidence to tell other people they could have done better. Of those who do, a smaller percentage have the emotional intelligence to deliver their feedback tactfully.

The benefits of candor are well-documented, but it’s not enough to hold a Lunch & Learn and call it a day. Every level of leadership must be committed to modeling the candor you want to see in your organization. That commitment must be ongoing, and it must work both ways. Furthermore, while tough conversations should be held in private, their benefits should be celebrated. Using a few morning standup minutes to share an example of how internal feedback leads to a positive outcome will show your team the value of these conversations.

Create Channels for Honest Communication

By now, most organizations use some form of internal messaging platform, like Slack. Fast and easy communication throughout the organization is key to breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration.

However, as a leader, ask yourself whether your organization has channels in place for communicating about sensitive topics without the perceived risk of political interference. What procedures exist for reporting unfair or harmful management practices? How should someone communicate their need for accommodation for an invisible disability? In a transparent organization, the onus is on you to build these channels of communication and ensure your team knows about them.

Committing to a culture of transparency is not easy, and in the beginning, there are bound to be uncomfortable choices to make. For guidance on integrating transparency into your people strategy, contact my team and me at East Tenth Group today.