I'm a big fan of Simon Sinek's and subscribe to receive his daily inspirational messages via email. In my inbox this morning was this little gem:

Transparency doesn't mean sharing every detail. Transparency means always providing the context for our decisions.

To Sinek's first point, one ongoing debate is around how much access to (privileged) information employees should be given to do their work.

The answer: They should get whatever they explicitly request so they can perform at a high level. This is good for business.

In command-and-control hierarchies fueled by hubris and fear, managers hoard information, impose layers of bureaucracy, call for unnecessary meetings, and cause gridlock for knowledge workers trying to do their job effectively. 

In open and inclusive cultures of collaboration, information travels at the speed of light right down to customer-facing workers, managers serve instead of dictate, and employees are given instant feedback and access to resources to do their jobs well.

How much transparency is too much transparency?

But, still, to Sinek's point that transparency doesn't mean "sharing every detail," where do you draw the line? 

The Container Store has a strong culture of values and defines its communication practices like this: "Simply put, we want every single employee in our company to know absolutely everything."

Buffer, the social media management company, publishes pretty much everything publicly: financials, revenue, how your money is being spent, even salaries (Joel Gascoigne, Buffer's CEO, makes $225,518). But the company shares this with everyone in the hopes of becoming a more authentic and trusted community.

Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund, records every meeting and makes it available to all employees. The firm does it as a communication vehicle and a learning tool to illustrate how decisions are made, and how the most senior people in the organization are learning and growing.

Too much? Maybe for some companies. But choosing not to disclose information may pose a greater risk: backlash by unhappy employees who air their complaints on Glassdoor and social media.

That brings us to Sinek's second point in his wise quote, which is more apropos to the discussion.

Provide the context for your decisions

Transparency is a management buzzword you didn't hear 10 or 15 years ago. Back then, management decisions made in secrecy weren't questioned. Today, transparency is a mechanism embedded in the engines that drive trust cultures. Millennial employees expect it and even demand it in their leaders.

But to Sinek's point, the real reason for transparency practiced as a business value is so that employees understand why and how things are happening and decisions are made.

Take Buffer's CEO Joel Gascoigne. Three years ago, he made the tough decision of laying off 11 percent of his workforce. In a very transparent public announcement, Gascoigne laid out all the reasons behind his decision, including the very mistakes he made. He wrote:

I had poor judgment and took the wrong actions in many different areas. Especially at this time, I want to try to live our value of transparency and share everything about the big mistakes we've made, the tough changes we've decided upon as a result, and where we go from here.

He continues:

In short, this was all caused by the fact that we grew the team too big, too fast. We thought we were being mindful about balancing the pace of our hiring with our revenue growth. We weren't.

One of our advisors gave us an apt metaphor for what happened: We moved into a house that we couldn't afford with our monthly paycheck.

He took the fall. Some will call Gascoigne's public admission naive and corporate suicide. Skeptics will say that that level of transparency hindered Buffer's ability to hire talent and raise funding to propel Buffer forward. 

Actually, what it did was strengthen the company's culture (since transparency is a clearly defined core value of Buffer's) and allowed it to make better decisions moving forward. 

Carolyn Kopprasch, chief customer officer at Buffer, stated that operational transparency can be time consuming, particularly for a remote company like Buffer, but it's well worth the effort. "As a team, we feel like you should be able to say, 'I wonder what our leads are talking about, I wonder how product is doing on their goals.' We're a small enough company that every team's successes influence every other team."

In the end, leaders should choose to practice and model transparency to build trust and solve problems; otherwise, uncertainty and confusion will raise more questions and cause problems you don't want to solve.

Published on: Jan 31, 2019
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