how to improve transparency on your team

People often think of “transparency” as being something that happens (or doesn’t happen) at the very top levels of a company, such as transparency with shareholders, the media, or the public. But transparency is also important for individual managers at the team level, because it will lead to better decision-making, better collaboration, and a great sense of ownership throughout your team.

Creating a culture of transparency isn’t that hard, if you’re committed to doing it. Here are five key places to start.

1. Explain your decisions. As the boss, you can sometimes get away with not explaining your decisions – but you should do it anyway. When you explain the “why” behind assignments, policies, and other decisions, you’ll get more buy-in because people will understand where you’re coming from and will have the benefit of hearing your perspective, and people who feel that you respect them are more likely to respect you in return. Give people a chance to ask questions and have a real back-and-forth about decisions, and don’t get annoyed when people question you.

2. Invite input. Transparency isn’t just about sharing information; it’s also about giving people a chance to have a real dialogue with you. That means giving people opportunities to give meaningful input into the big decisions that you’re grappling with, and engaging with them in a real way when they do, by asking questions back to them, explaining where you disagree and why, and giving them a chance to consider and respond to that.

3. Don’t shoot the messenger or punish people for delivering bad news. There’s no faster way to train your staff to hide problems from you or wait to inform you until the last minute than punishing the bearers of bad news. If you want people to be open with you about challenges, obstacles, or outright bad news (from an angry client to signs that a big deadline might be missed), you’ve got to make them feel safe coming to you early. The way you do that is to be calm when you hear bad news, not react angrily or negatively, and make a point of thanking people when they’re candid with you, even when it’s something you didn’t want to hear.

4. Talk openly about mistakes. When a project doesn’t go as planned, be open about it, and talk about what didn’t work and why. It can be difficult to admit failure, but keeping employees in the loop will actually increase most people’s confidence in your leadership, and their confidence that they’ll know if something goes wrong in the future (rather than having to worry that they might be left out of important information).

Too often, when things go wrong, managers try to control what information gets out, but it usually backfires because employees can tell they’re being left in the dark, and that tends to make people more alarmed. Plus, people will usually start filling in the blanks on their own, and they either won’t get the facts quite right or it will get discussed without the sense of perspective that could have been added if the situation had been addressed more openly. If you’re open with people about what’s going on, you can probably avoid the worst of that and often build good will.

5. Let your team see you being transparent with your own boss. Your team will take cues from you, so if they see you modeling open, candid communication with people above you, they’re likely to pick up those habits themselves.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. GT*

    Transparency is good. Unfortunately, my boss ordered me to remain silent on a major “misstep,” which then blew up in his (and, therefore, my) face. Since he’s off-site, and I’m the on-site manager, I get all the questions/gossip. I’m still trying to straighten things out and it’s been 6 months. I’m still not officially allowed to “tell,” but everyone knows – they just don’t know the entire story.

    The stock photo they chose for that article was interesting. :)

    1. fposte*

      Yeah. “Be open with your team about the inadvisability of jimmying open the door to the mutant enclosure.”

  2. AnonEMoose*

    Thanks for this. Transparency is something we’re struggling with in a volunteer organization. And one of the struggles is that everyone seems to want transparency, but they can’t define it well.

    Mostly, it seems to mean “give me the information I want, but I should never have to ask, you should just psychically know what I want to/think I should know.” And sometimes, it means “I want all the gossip, either because I want to feel ‘in the know,’ or because I can use the information to push my own agenda.” Frustrating, to say the least.

    But maybe, we can use this as a starting point for discussion.

    1. fposte*

      It can take a little practice to know where the best balance lies. I made a mistake early on by overcommunicating with my staff about turbulence from above and thus worrying them unnecessarily; now I’m more judicious about the need to know.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I went through the same thing. As a member of the junior staff, I felt that management didn’t communicate enough, which led to lots of gossip, filling in the blanks, etc. So, when I made the move from staff to management I became very open and communicated a lot. Too much. It caused a lot of turbulence and people seemed to be in even more of an upheaval than when they didn’t get any communication. These days, I strike a decent balance. I try to think about whether whatever it is really needs to be said, and if it needs to be said by me.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      There are things you have to skip telling them. Any statement that starts out “we are thinking about….” is something to consider carefully before broadcasting. Management thinks about many things, some of the thoughts last all of five minutes. They do not need to know every thought. I used to get knots in my stomach from the staggering amount of stuff I did not mention to people because I knew management was having yet another fleeting thought.

      AnonEMouse, it sounds like the crew is not very focused on the work itself. This could be in part because there is no defined flow for information. Leader says do X. Some people find out and others do not. In groups that are messy, it’s a good idea for the leader(s) to announce how information will flow. “We will tell Bob, Sue and Carol. Then they in turn will make sure each of you know.” OR “We have a bulletin board for our messages, please check each time you work.” The system can be what ever works for the group. But the leaders should take the reins on this by laying out a flow or path for information to be spread.

      To the mind-reading thing, I would make sure that everyone is aware that part of the job is to make sure new information is passed on. People should be asking each other if there is any thing new they need to be filled on and others should be answering them. Tell them “Asking and answering is part of the job here. You must do this if you wish to volunteer here.”

      Good luck with the gossiping thing– am shaking my head. However, maybe one or two people can start a ripple by saying things such as “I am not here for the gossip. I am here because I think X is a good cause and I want to help.” I think if you hammer out routine paths for the flow of new information, the gossiping will tend to die down some. It could be that the gossip just fills the holes caused by poor information flows. Some people derive energy from gossip, they literally cannot function without gossiping. Maybe those people need to be asked to leave.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        It’s not that they aren’t focused on the work. It’s more the opposite problem, in a way. The volunteers are, for the most part, very dedicated and passionate. This means they have a strong sense of ownership, and that sometimes leads them to believe that they should have input on every decision, know everything, etc.

        Mostly I’m in favor of getting input…but it’s just not possible for everyone to be involved in every decision, and sometimes there are things about which it’s not appropriate to share all of the details (specific details about why someone wasn’t asked back (fired, in essence), or why someone was banned from an event, for example).

        That’s a good point about the gossip making up for information not flowing as it should. It’s something we’re working on, but these things take time. It’s a complicated situation.

        1. notmyusualname*

          I admit, I stalked your comments to see if you were at my organization because this sounds so very familiar. (Nope, it’s just a not-uncommon problem for volunteer-driven organizations!)

  3. AnotherFed*

    How do you balance being transparent about what went wrong with not criticizing employees’ performance in public? Someone where I work recently got fired, presumably for poor performance. The person stuck taking over Fired Employee’s tasks has a ton of clean up to do – everything is behind, poorly completed, or both. Where’s the balance between explaining to the project team why things are late and getting reworked vs not throwing fired guy under the bus?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I am that person cleaning up a huge mess. Without exaggerating I can say that the mess is so bad, I will not finish it. ever. No exaggeration there.

      I just go item by item.
      “For whatever reason, that form was never completed. I will finish it and get it out to you this week.”
      “That document is not with the file. I have no means of recreating it. This was done before I started.”
      “X process was not done before I started. I became aware that we should be doing it. I have implemented a plan to weave that in with other tasks and it is now being done.”

      It might be worth your while to ask your boss what to say if this is happening all the time. You may consider having a chat with the project team lead. “I am taking over Bob’s spot. We both know that there are problems with the work flows, things are late or incomplete. I am pulling out all the stops to get this situation turned around. But it is going to take me a while to fix all this. My goal is to meet all deadlines and have completed work each time. I wanted you to be aware that I am concerned and I am working on things.”

    2. fposte*

      In addition to what NSNR says, while you don’t want to make Fired Guy a scapegoat, he’s Fired Guy for a reason, and you don’t have to pretend his name was drawn out of a hat; it’s different than if he was still there or he was out medical leave. So it’s okay that they’re going to know “X process was not done before I started” means “Fired Guy didn’t do it.” Don’t make it personal, and definitely resist any temptation to try to bond with them over how horrible Fired was at this, but don’t feel you have to make up stories to shield Fired Guy.

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