Transparency: The Whole Truth (sometimes), and Nothing but the Truth (occasionally)
In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, heads of state with Twitter handles and wide-open kitchens in restaurants, it's easy to assume transparency is a naturally occurring phenomenon - the inevitable result of a world growing ever smaller through the proliferation of social media and connected technologies. While this assumption is true to a certain extent, it overlooks some critical nuances surrounding the concept of transparency, particularly in today's business environment.
Is it something to avoid? Manage? Or embrace? What are the rules of the road, if any exist? When does confidentiality trump transparency, and how does an organization acknowledge the need for both?
These are important issues to explore because transparency has also become the battle-cry of modern communicators, demanding employees and progressive executives. It encompasses not only what you tell employees – but also the target, channels and frequency of your communication. As you strive to achieve the appropriate level of transparency in your organization, keep these points in mind:
Transparency and authenticity are not synonymous. People often confuse the two, so it’s critical to be clear on what each word actually represents. Transparency involves WHAT you communicate. Authenticity is about HOW you communicate. Be clear with your leaders and communicators which issue you’re tackling and push to strike the right balance of each.
Transparency is not an absolute. There will always be information you cannot and will not communicate, for a variety of solid reasons: confidentiality, financial-disclosure regulations, strategic initiatives not yet ready for prime-time or other considerations. Set the expectation up front that employees can’t be privy to everything, but that you will always share what you can, when you can.
Transparency means open communication – not “open the floodgates.” If you push a tidal wave of company information to all employees in the name of transparency, you will overwhelm them. Even in a transparent environment, you still need to set and follow a communications strategy and filter your communications by audience, target, timing and relevance.
Honesty and transparency go hand-in-hand. This may seem rudimentary, but when you aim for transparency, employees will call you out when they perceive a lack of it. It’s one thing to anticipate this outcry – quite another to deal with it in the moment. Picture a live event, when an employee stands up and – in the name of transparency – asks THE tough question. The answers in these situations are often “we don’t know,” or “we can’t say any more about that at this time.” This can be an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved, so be sure you – and your executives – are prepared for that kind of honesty.
A cry for transparency may, in fact, be a desire for something else. Sometimes when employees complain about a lack of transparency, the real issue is a level deeper. Mistrust of the company. A lack of regular communication. Jargon-filled content that masks the real message. Before reinventing your communications program in an effort to achieve the elusive goal of transparency, make sure you have identified the true root cause of the issue you are attempting to solve.