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ATD Blog

Transparency Builds Trust


Wed Feb 20 2019

Transparency Builds Trust

The recent passing of former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher is a reminder of how important it is for leaders to be transparent.

Employees loved Kelleher. He dressed in costumes and danced with employees at company parties, he jumped behind the counter and sold tickets, he went out on the tarmac to greet passengers as they boarded the plane, and sometimes he even passed out peanuts on board.


Kelleher was authentic—an essential character trait for effective leadership.

Many people feel confident moving up to a managerial role because of their knowledge and experience, then suddenly realize the job requires something more: leadership ability. Searching for role models to imitate is not the answer. The best approach is simply to be authentic.

An authentic manager not only has a strong ethical code but also is transparent, and those qualities influence their communication with employees. The manager honestly shares all the information that team members need.

Employees are the spine of a business; if a manager doesn’t motivate people, they lose interest, become less productive, and are more inclined to leave.

When information is shared, employees feel empowered to contribute and feel a sense of accomplishment when their ideas are acted on. They are inclined to invest more effort and produce results that exceed expectations. Employees are frustrated and resentful when management doesn’t share important facts and details that they need to perform their jobs.


Transparency builds trust, because employees feel confident that a manager is not hiding information. This is not easy in corporate cultures where managers and executives frequently withhold information and tell others only what they want to hear.

Here are a few steps you can take as a manager to encourage transparency:

Keep your promises. If you say that decision making will be collaborative and then commit your team to doing a project without asking anyone, you reneged on your pledge. It’s a loss of transparency and trust. Employees pay attention to your words and your actions, and when they are not consistent, they will focus on your actions.

Be open with information. Don’t announce a decision and say that it’s final because “I’m the boss.” Explain your rationale behind decisions. Let people know the books are open, not closed. When you cannot share something, tell people that you cannot disclose certain details. They will understand and will appreciate your candor.

Give feedback. When someone does well, rather than provide minimal feedback, give rich, detailed, and descriptive observations. Be candid about what you know and what you don’t, and about your capacity to help.


Let them know you failed. Don’t be afraid to let your followers, fellow team members, and other leaders see you fail. They will learn from you how to react to failure and how to learn from it. This is transparency.

Transparency begins with a commitment—a conscious decision to create an atmosphere that encourages the free flow of information that employees need.

Editor's note: Ken O’Quinn is a contributing author of a new ATD book on leadership, Focus on Them. He discusses transparency, effective feedback, and difficult conversations.

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