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ATD Blog

What Transparent Cultures Look Like

Monday, January 8, 2024
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In these post-Covid chaotic times, uncertainty in the workplace is the name of the game. Yet paradoxes abound. For instance, some organizations are separating employees, while others are adding jobs. Or, while as many organizations implement hiring freezes or job elimination programs, salaries are up in others.

The job of leading effectively has always been a challenge, but during a period of such dichotomy, the pressure is on for leaders. In addition to economic unrest, there is a growing disconnect between leaders and their teams, finds O.C. Tanner in its Global Culture Report. Employees are stressed, often overworked, and burned out, leading to widespread disengagement. Indeed, there is a continuing downward trend in engagement: 68 percent of full- and part-time employees working for organizations are disengaged, while a startling 17 percent are actively disengaged, Gallup reports.

Consider this scenario: Paul, the contracts manager for a large research foundation in the midwest went into the office one day and found he had a new supervisor. Over his 10 years with the company, Paul had earned accolades for the money he raised and the trust he had built with funders. Paul was confused. What was this new position? Why wasn’t he consulted? Why wasn’t he offered the position?

Within a year, a furlough program was announced, and Paul was on the list. He had the choice of returning to his position at the end of the following quarter or taking severance. When considering his options amid what had become his new normal—an absence of understanding and communication about organizational plans and his role—Paul’s decision was easy. He took the severance. After a decade of stellar performance, his trust was eroded.

How could this situation have turned out differently?

Enter transparency

The core value of transparency is creating a culture of openness, where information is shared freely, and all feel safe and confident to speak up. Research shows that having a speak out culture improves an organization’s efficiency, inclusivity, and employee satisfaction.

What transparency looks like in each organization may differ. But in a transparent workplace, employees and leaders alike are encouraged to share achievements and mistakes. There is a feeling of safety. Decisions are made and the thought process behind them explained.

Workplaces that build a culture of transparency often report the following benefits:

(ATD members can learn more about these tenets in the TD Magazine article: "Transparent Cultures Are Built on Trust.")

To instill a culture of transparency, communication between organizational leadership and workers is key. Great leaders are good listeners, and open and honest communicators. To ensure a culture of transparent communication, consider adopting these five strategies and tips:

  • Explain the why behind decisions
  • Communicate frequently; listen and ask more
  • Set clear workplace goals and expectations; check in regularly
  • Seek and give feedback frequently and candidly
  • It's not what you say—it's what you do

(ATD members can learn more about these strategies in the TD Magazine article: "Transparent Cultures Are Built on Trust.")

Case in point

For a closer look at these strategies in action, let’s take a look at a few case studies.

Sarah fails to explain
As the boss Sarah leaves the office for the day, she tosses a pile of letters on Ruby’s desk and says, “These need to go out tonight.” Ruby is a single parent who is fined when she picks up her son late from daycare. While fuming, she wonders, “Why can’t this wait until tomorrow? The boss knows I must be on time to get my son. Why can’t she ask someone else to do this?”

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But here’s the backstory: The agency that Sarah and Ruby work for provides services to the homeless, and it fell short of its fundraising goal. The pile of envelopes are appeal letters to top donors.

What if Sarah had said: “Ruby, I am so sorry to have to ask you to do this since your son needs to be picked up soon. But we are $10,000 short of our fundraising goal. I’m giving you letters to top donors asking for more support. It’s critical that the letters go out tonight. I know what good work you produce and that I can count on you to get this done.”

By telling Ruby the “why” behind the decision and her key role in the organization, a seemingly mundane task becomes a critical task in serving the agency’s clients.

Tom shares details
The People and Culture VP at a mid-sized financial services firm tasked Tom with heading a team of colleagues to brainstorm ideas on how to begin the transition from 100 percent remote work to a hybrid model. Tom was nervous and fearful that his colleagues would question his role in developing this organizational plan, so he consulted with Tamara, the organization’s head of talent development. He soon had a plan of action.

He decided to hold a one-hour meeting and invite 10 supervisory colleagues, some of whom he knew would probably not want to return to the workplace. He planned to spend 10 minutes up-front outlining the goal of the meeting, explaining why the participants were selected, and establishing ground rules (no “wrong” responses or “dumb” comments among them). Next, Tom would conduct a 20-minute brainstorming session, asking for as many creative ideas as possible. For the last 30 minutes, he would lead the group in narrowing down their ideas into three solid suggestions to share with the organizational leaders to try implementing.

While planning the meeting, Tamara coached Tom to be totally clear and upfront with participants about expectations. Tom followed her advice. For example, during the decision-making phase, he said: “I’m glad so many ideas have emerged. I’m impressed. I didn’t want to limit our thinking, so I didn’t detail some of the constraints we’re under, but we were tasked with developing just three suggestions that would include both remote and on-site work, and that could be implemented within a month. Given we have 15 solid ideas, let’s narrow our three choices. Who wants to nominate one of the ideas that meets the criteria?”

Thanks to guidance from Tamara, Tom knew he needed to thoroughly and frequently communicate information if was going to lead the team to a successful outcome.

Sonia neglects to set expectations
Frequently, high-performing individual contributors who take the initiative are promoted into supervisory positions. Without training or coaching, Sonia fell into the same trap as many first-time supervisors: she assumed her team was as motivated and hardworking as she was.

During her first meeting as leader, she tasked the team with reconfiguring the office layout. She asked that it be completed within a week. That’s it. Thinking that “anyone should be able to figure this out,” Sonia gave no additional guidance. She did not define what she meant by reconfiguring the office or tell the team whether this was a priority and should take precedence over other ongoing projects. Sonia also failed to provide a budget.

Not surprisingly, it was a disaster. The team, trying to anticipate what Sonia wanted, developed a high-end plan to remove walls, create an open space, and purchase new furniture and computers. Also, some priority work went unfinished.

But what if, Sonia had said, “I’m new to this team and thought it would be fun to start with a new look to the office. How about if the four of you develop a plan for making changes to our office space? I’m sorry to say we have a limited budget to do this—about $1000 per team member. Please be creative and think about how we could change the look and feel of our workspace. I don’t want to stifle creativity, so I won’t share my views. But I will be around to bounce ideas off, and I’ll check in to see how things are going?”

More importantly, what if she had added, “If anyone has a priority project, let me know so we can figure out how to get it done.” Sonia could have avoided problems if she had simply laid out expectations and constraints for the project.

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Donna admits her mistakes
The senior VP of marketing asks Donna to rework the function’s annual budget, reducing it overall by 10 percent. Her first direction to the five teams in her departments is simply: “Cut 10 percent and come back to me in a week with your recommendations and reasons why.”

Three teams go through each line item and reduce them by 10 percent. With a wink and a nod, they share that they expected a reduction, so they had initially padded the budget with an extra 10 percent. When the other two teams review their budgets, it becomes clear that if they make the 10 percent reduction, it will seriously hamper operations and they will be unable to meet strategic goals.

Donna recognizes that the across-the-board reductions won’t work. What went wrong? Donna did not thoroughly think through the real issue: how to meet the organization’s business goals with a lower budget. This meant she gave faulty direction—a flat 10 percent reduction to everyone.

To fix the problem, Donna holds a group meeting with team leaders and says, “In rethinking my initial request, I realize I made a mistake. The across-the-board reduction for all teams doesn’t allow everyone to meet strategic objectives. I want all three of you to hear this same message, and then I will meet with you individually to determine what is a realistic budget reduction for your team and work. My apologies for this misstep.”

Now, when she meets with each of the leaders, they carefully review their budgets and are able to make necessary but realistic reductions. This enables Donna to achieve the goal of an overall 10 percent reduction, with varying cuts across the department.

Transparency equals trust

Teams look to their leaders to see if they follow their own advice. If so, the team will follow their lead. If not, leaders lose credibility, and cynicism can grow. Consider this last scenario:

Fresh from the thrill of becoming CEO, Carl starts his tenure by developing a new company logo and an alliterative catchphrase of company-wide cultural commitments. “We at ACME stand for: candor, communication, customers, and commitment.”

To demonstrate his commitment to these principles, Carl holds a company-wide meeting. After a PowerPoint presentation on goals for the company, he asks team members to come to the microphone and ask any questions on their minds.

Brenda steps up and asks: “May I say that we all appreciate the commitment to candor. Along those lines, we haven’t had raises in two years, when can we expect one?”

Carl stands in stunned silence. He responds abruptly, “I don’t know. Oh, I see that our time is up.”

As the room vacates, Carl is heard saying to the HR director, “I thought you previewed all of these questions. I don’t like being caught off-guard.”

So much for seeking feedback and communication? So much for candor? Damage done.

Bottom line: Open and honest communication is the foundation for transparent leadership. Establishing and sustaining a strong organizational culture takes leaders dedicated to investing their time and attention on that goal. But building a culture of transparency has lasting impacts on retention, morale, productivity, and business results. In other words, it’s well worth the effort.

About the Author

Diana Peterson-More, a labor lawyer and HR head, left a Fortune 50 to launch the Organizational Effectiveness Group, which focuses on people strategies as well as organizational services and products to support strategic workplace goals. A bestselling author, blogger, guest columnist, and presenter, she has been featured in CEO Magazine and on various podcasts.

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