Communication essentials: a culture of transparency

In the ‘ben thinking’ email roundup, we’ve seen a lot of stories and trends around transparency. Everyone wants it. Employees want it. Companies want to have it. And communications consultants, like us, won’t shut up about it.

I was listening to a podcast about how talent management looks post-pandemic. Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO and president of the Society for Human Resource Management, was talking about this on HBR IdeaCast, and he hit on the fact that employees need to be ready for transparency. As in ‘you may not always like what you hear … but you wanted transparency.’

I love this point because it looks at transparency from a holistic point of view. Companies spend a lot of time trying to be transparent … and employees spend a lot of time saying they want to work somewhere that is transparent.

However, transparency isn’t just about the good stuff. Which leads me to today’s ‘communication essential’—are you building a culture of transparency?

Weird that transparency and culture go hand in hand. Just like culture, you don’t wake up one day and decide you want to be transparent. And just like culture, transparency is something you need plan for and work on, consistently.

I wish I could tell you our organization was always transparent. Sure, if you asked us, we would say ‘yes, of course.’ But in reality, we made the same mistakes a lot of organizations did or do. We’d hold back negative feedback. We’d try to position news positively. We were slower than we should have been with updates because we were naïve about how fast information travels within an organization.

That being said, thankfully for us, it was easier to move to a truly transparent culture because of the work we had put in on developing and protecting that culture. And while direct feedback may not always have been a part of it, accountability and supporting each other were. These are some of the foundations you need to start building that culture and move to a more transparent organization.

Here are a few ideas I’d like to share as you consider where your culture and your commitment to transparency intersect.

Outline expectations. As mentioned, culture is everyone’s responsibility. But you have to communicate that. So, for everyone to understand they have a part in this, you need to tell them … they have a part in this. What that part is. And how they can be accountable—and hold others accountable. You can’t deliver negative feedback then tell a surprised and hurt employee, ‘hey, you wanted transparency!’ if this wasn’t how the culture was operating previously.

Objectivity is key. When sharing news, updates, etc., within your organization, remember to live in the facts. Any opinion or editorial you add that makes employees think something that is contradicted by future decisions or updates that seem like you meant another thing gives the impression that you weren’t being totally honest in the first place.

Mass messaging. Company news is just that—company news. We’ve all heard of ‘telephone.’ You don’t want that game playing out in your office using important company news as its subject. Outside of your executive team, critical updates should be delivered to the whole company at once.

To spare is to error. I’ve written—and rewritten—a lot of company emails where I removed—then put back in—information that ultimately was critical to the news I was delivering. The reason I thought about pulling it at first? Because I was worried how people would take it. But what ultimately happens is people look for what you don’t say, create their own narrative and then react to that when you eventually share the rest. You are hurting your credibility, the company culture and others’ trust and growth when you do this.

That’s what I meant. No, seriously! I’m happy with the culture we’ve built where people know that what I’m saying is what I know. They have the confidence to know that at the end, we all know the same info. Sometimes even saying ‘I don’t know but I thought you’d be wondering if I did.’ It’s taken some time to get there, and I’ve personally followed up with a lot of people to explain that what was said is exactly what was meant, but it’s been worth the work.

Two-way transparency. As I mentioned above, I proactively reach out a lot to make sure there are no questions. Sometimes in small groups, sometimes 1:1 and sometimes in all-agency meetings. But the fact is, this is now expected and appreciated. Just as important as it is that I do this, it’s also important that employees are accountable to that process and use it to share questions, info and comments that can possibly help the whole company.

A little bit longer of a post today but I feel so strongly about the importance of transparency. It can yield such great results if you are committed to it and understand you will always be working on it. It won’t always be perfect, and you will always be learning but that’s the beauty and the joy of working somewhere that understands an organization is a living, breathing thing.

I’d love to talk more about this with you. Happy to share experiences and more lessons I’ve learned as we’ve been on this journey at akhia!