The real power of transparency and openness

Steve Holliday emphasises the importance of honesty and openness in the workplace.

New research from the University of Warwick Business School has shone a light on the importance of transparency in the workplace – where scrutiny of reality is seen as powerful and helpful, even if difficult and challenging. Leaders often carry anxieties about how transparent their organisations are and can be, and have dilemmas about how transparent they can be with employees, and when.

The research highlights specifically that hiding difficult news from employees actually demotivates them. Therefore, leaders should share important news as early as possible, even when difficult, and of course do it with good support for all.

That said, dealing with deeper scrutiny and openness can also be a real challenge. The current levels of transparency emerging in both Westminster and Hollywood, and previously in banking, automotive manufacturing and care home sectors, shows us that leading for transparency is one thing – and being bold and skilful enough to create it and deal with it well, is another.

What is clear is that many organisations start with a deep intention to create an open and transparent culture. Organisations are complex, with lots of factors always impacting perceptions of how things are.

This greater scrutiny and openness ensures deeper validation of the reality in an organisation, and better signals both strengths and weaknesses. Crucially, when done well, it helps the robustness and quality of decisions and actions, and nurtures the morals, values and ethics most wanted by people working together. This in turn develops stronger ownership and trust in organisations.

Expect challenges

As important as it is to build a transparent culture, this doesn’t mean everyone needs to know everything. Humans are always making judgements about what to share and not – this is normal.

  • ‘Do we tell the staff this now?’
  • ‘Do I tell my boss what I know, or keep quiet?’
  • ‘I want to share this, though legally I can’t’
  • ‘How do I challenge this if I fear for my future?”

Transparency can often lead to ‘revelations’, both positive and negative, whether about business performance and its future implications, or behaviours, culture and the impacts on people and performance.

These revelations, particularly if negative, can be insightful and liberating, yet also difficult and challenging to face. Leaders need good support mechanisms to help them navigate these matters successfully, alongside the passion, rigour and discipline to own what is happening and lead improvements.

Create ownership and empowerment

Leaders have power and influence as part of the natural process of hierarchies in organisations. How they use that power and influence, and how everyone plays a part in owning what happens, makes a big difference.

Leaders – in fact anyone in an influential position in an organisation – need to lead in creating a culture of openness, transparency, empowerment and trust.

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Leaders need to disturb their own learning by paying attention to how they are using power and influence, and what the impact is on others. Regular, open feedback from those around them is important, so provide a support network to allow this.

Place genuine authority and power where ownership and empowerment is expected, to make it okay for people to routinely speak up and know they will actually be heard.

Start to ‘check in’

One useful tool in creating openness and transparency in the workplace, and develop ownership and empowerment within teams, is to implement the following check-in system:

  • Create a slot during normal meetings, called ‘check in’ – usually at the start of a key meet or day together.
  • Treat it as a listening tool – as well as a speaking tool – laptops down, phones away, paying attention to each other and yourself.
  • ‘Check in’ on how every person is, how the working relationships are between everyone, and what each individual’s needs are.
  • Key questions include ‘How am I doing?’ and ‘How are we doing?’
  • Share as much or as little as you want – a few minutes each.
  • Do not accept “I’m fine” or “I’m ok” as answers – encourage people to genuinely stop and reflect on how they are, and how the group is as a whole.
  • If some don’t wish to share, that’s ok too – it will come in time.
  • If you want to, bookend the day or meeting with a shorter check-out covering ‘how are we as we leave?’, and ‘what did we notice were our greatest strengths today as a group?’

A transparent, empowered culture builds a community of trust. Most people want to be part of something worth doing at work – and want to feel safe and able to thrive. If led and supported well, this develops a grown-up culture of shared ownership and accountability for what is really going on between people.

In addition, the more this becomes normal, the less likely it is that things are hidden or held back, as it becomes even likelier that employees will share more. This creates a generative cycle of being easier to do – as it becomes normal and safe to do – in fact, a valued business imperative.

Regular ‘check-ins’ are a small powerful step to growing bigger relationships and conversations – and really help openness and transparency. The first step is to ask these questions: How are you nurturing openness and transparency in your workplace? How are you developing ownership and empowerment? Are you checking in regularly?


About the author

Steve Holliday is director of Lacerta Consulting.


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