Ever been in an important meeting where a topic on the agenda causes tension that you can cut with a knife? Instead of colleagues speaking up to solve an issue, you get poker faces and eyes looking down to avert what nobody wants to deal with.

The same is true when it comes to having those tough conversations to call someone to the carpet. We procrastinate or avoid the confrontation, because it's never pleasant, for example, to tell someone she's not cutting it.

So when people ask me, "What's the secret to great communication?" my usual response baffles some, because it can seem so counterintuitive: "Be radically transparent."

Radical transparency does not mean telling someone to his face in front of his peers that his polka-dotted tie is ugly. It's having the emotional courage to stand up to someone or something when you feel violated, to speak from a deep place tugging at your heart, or to cut through healthy conflict now to avoid unhealthy conflict later.

A Leadership Lesson on Radical Transparency

In a recent interview, Chip Bergh, chief executive of Levi Strauss & Co., told The New York Times how he practices leadership transparency. One noteworthy example had to do with managing someone's performance.

I was at Procter & Gamble, which was a promote-from-within company that placed a huge emphasis on the role of the manager to develop their people. In fact, it was part of your performance review.

My first hire was supersmart, but he really wasn't performing over time, and I felt pressure to get this guy promoted. I basically carried him and got him promoted. But about four months later, he was gone for performance reasons.

The big lesson for me, and it stuck with me forever, is that you've got to be really transparent and straight with people, and if they're not cutting it, you've got to tell them where they're not cutting it. Hold the bar up high, and if it's not a good fit, call it.

The Antidote to Toxic Work Cultures

Transparency will quell a toxic work culture where people are at odds, the political climate is heavy, and personal egos stifle teams. Bergh agrees on these points. He tells The Times:

Being extremely transparent builds trust over time. I'm not a big fan of organizations where people backstab or talk behind others' backs. So when I've led teams, it's always been about how we work together to get the best results.

I've got some trusted people who will tell me if [politics] is going on behind my back. If I see it, you've just got to squash it like a bug as soon as it happens and not tolerate it.

You have to be really clear about how we're going to operate, and if you can't play that way, then you should probably find another team to play on.

Transparency isn't strictly about leveraging positional power, if that's an impression being formed from comments like, "you should probably find another team to play on." Rather, for Bergh, it has always been about the team and getting the work done. When people are not pulling their weight, then you have to pull the trigger, sooner than later. Here's Bergh:

You have to look holistically at the people on your team and constantly look for ways to strengthen the team. I've never regretted moving too fast to let somebody go. I've had times when I've regretted waiting as long as I did to make a move.

When a leader displays transparency, team members know exactly how they're doing and where they stand with performance. The leader is also willing to solicit feedback and give employees a voice on decisions. Bergh's top employees have benefited from this approach, as they have helped shape Levi's company culture. He tells The Times:

When I first got here, I interviewed the top 60 people in the company, and I sent them questions in advance, including, What are the three things you think we have to change? What are the three things that we have to keep? What do you most want me to do? What are you most afraid I might do?

I had an hour scheduled for each of them, and by the end, I was really clear about the company's DNA, and the values that were really important to everyone who works here.

Closing Thoughts

In today's preferred freedom-oriented work cultures, radical transparency is a leadership strength that helps build a foundation of trust. The key is for information (good and bad) to flow freely and quickly among managers and employees -- both ways -- so expectations are mutually clear and consistent, and everyone is on the same page. This eliminates confusion, ambiguity, suspicion, and the element of unpleasant surprise.