Not just another vague opinion piece on “transparency”…

My team and I recently led an intense working session with leaders to redesign their organization to better execute on their strategy. They pushed their thinking and made tough calls, but we still had more to do. And the question came up – “What should we tell our teams for now? They know we’re doing this.” As these executives wrestled with their differing opinions on what they should or shouldn’t share with their teams, I realized that something really important has been missing from the conversation about transparency.

No matter where you go, you’ll hear people demanding more transparency from the leaders around them – from government officials to celebrities, spiritual leaders to CEOs. But I would argue that transparency on its own isn’t the magic bullet it’s made out to be. Like a burger without the fries (good, but somehow not good enough), transparency needs a partner. It needs authenticity. Why, you ask? Well, I posit that being transparent alone isn’t what we’re really asking of our leaders. I believe that what we’re really seeking are leaders and organizations worthy of our trust… 

What we want is genuine leadership.

Let’s discuss two components of trust-inspiring leadership: Transparency & Authenticity.

Laying the Foundation

Before we get too far, let’s quickly set the stage with some definitions. When we talk about transparency in organizations, we’re referring to the openness and honesty with which leaders and teams communicate, making information readily available and easily understood. It’s about removing barriers, both physical and metaphorical, to foster a clear understanding of decisions, processes, and intentions. Many think that organizational transparency involves complete sharing of absolutely every detail about the business, but that’s not true at all. Transparency is not about publicizing every little detail about your organization, its people, and customers. No, transparency is about providing clarity where it counts, prioritizing openness in the most critical areas, and ensuring stakeholders have access to information that affects their relationship with the organization. It’s about striking a balance between openness and discretion, ensuring that what’s shared fosters trust without compromising privacy or strategic advantage.

Authenticity is a perfect and necessary complement to transparency, describing the alignment of external behaviors and decisions with internal character and values of a leader. Authenticity ensures that the transparency isn’t performative, but is rooted in the leader’s sincere intentions and beliefs. While occasionally used interchangeably with the idea of “bringing your full self to work”, authenticity is not about sharing every facet of who you are with your organization. Instead, authenticity emphasizes honest self-representation, showcasing a leader’s genuine character in their professional interactions.

With these definitions in mind, let’s explore the barriers to transparency and authenticity and how we can begin to cultivate both behaviors in ourselves and our organizations.

Four Fears

There are many barriers and roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving genuine leadership. Among these challenges, there are a few distinct themes that frequently show up, blocking us from embracing transparency and authenticity. Let’s quickly touch on a few of the most common, what I’ve dubbed the Four Fears.

Fear of a Loss of Control

Leadership often feels like a balancing act between guiding and letting go. The allure of micromanaging the flow of information and controlling what is being shared and how it’s being shared can be strong. But in the age of instant communication, trying to control every narrative is like trying to hold water in a sieve. So what can we do instead?

  1. Prioritize Key Narratives: While you can’t (and shouldn’t!) control everything, you can identify and prioritize the most important narratives or perceptions to guide. Focus your attention on those key narratives, weaving them into your daily interactions and strategic communications.
  2. Empower Autonomy: Give your emerging leaders and their teams the tools and training they need to perform optimally. And then, couple those resources with effective organizational systems to ensure alignment (i.e. Objectives & Key Results (OKR) framework for goal setting and clear organizational governance). At this point, you should trust your team to make decisions that align with your organizational objectives and key narratives, recognizing that a certain level of controlled chaos can lead to innovation.
  3. Feedback Loops: Establish regular feedback sessions and a variety of ways to accept both positive and constructive feedback. Have one-on-one meetings, schedule townhall style company gatherings, set up an anonymous “suggestion box” on the company intranet – the more ways you allow your people to share feedback, the more likely you are to hear what’s really going on, both good and bad.

Fear of a Loss of Credibility

Credibility is to leadership what a foundation is to a building. The fear of eroding this credibility often makes leaders tread cautiously – perhaps too cautiously. The contradiction here is clear: On one hand, sharing transparently might expose flaws and gaps; on the other, lack of transparency can severely diminish trust. Navigating this tension requires recognizing that credibility isn’t just about always having the answers, but about being genuine, even in moments of uncertainty.

  1. Admit When You Don’t Know: Instead of guessing or avoiding, be honest with your team. It’s okay to admit you don’t have an answer as long as you’re committed to finding one.
  2. Keep Sharpening: Regularly update your knowledge and skills. Get new certifications, attend industry conferences, take a course at the local university on your area of expertise. This not only enhances your credibility but also demonstrates commitment to growth.
  3. Consistency is Key: Communicate your values early and often, and then back your statements up with consistent actions, decisions, and communications. When people know what to expect from you – what standard you hold yourself to – your trust and credibility are strengthened.

Fear of Vulnerability

Vulnerability includes being open about our experiences, flaws, and what we do and don’t know. We all have an innate urge to fit in, to be part of the tribe, which often drives us to mask our insecurities, imperfections, and things that make us feel “other”. But here’s the twist you probably already know deep down: perfection is an unattainable standard that none of us can achieve. You might be surprised to find that people are more apt to trust and follow you when you lean into vulnerability – this gives them permission to remove their own masks and use their energy to build deeper relationships with their teams where they can learn, innovate, and grow together.

A few ideas for fighting the fear of vulnerability:

  1. Embrace Self-Reflection: Spend a few minutes daily acknowledging areas of growth, but also recognizing your strengths. This helps to keep things in perspective.
  2. Acknowledge Mistakes Openly: I like to think of mistakes as investments in our learning. When we slip up, it’s important to own it. This not only sets an example but also turns the error into a learning opportunity for everyone.
  3. Seek Feedback: This may sound daunting, but often, the feedback you receive is far kinder and more constructive than you might fear.

Fear of Being Misunderstood

When finding the courage to voice our thoughts and opinions, we sometimes find ourselves ruminating on our messaging: What if our words are taken out of context? What if our intentions, however well intended, get lost in translation? This fear often stems from past experiences where our words were misconstrued, leading to unintended consequences. However, authenticity thrives in the clarity of expression, and requires us to push past uncertainty and strive for a genuine connection with our audience. There are strategies we use to manage this fear of being misunderstood and help ensure our intention matches our impact. A few ideas:

  1. Start With “Why”: Begin difficult or complex conversations by clearly stating your intentions. For example, “I’m sharing this feedback because I believe it can help make our team stronger” or “My intention in saying this is…”
  2. Seek a Second Opinion: When in doubt, test it out with a trusted partner! Before any major announcement or decision, share your messaging with a trusted colleague or mentor. They might point out potential ambiguities or areas for misinterpretation.
  3. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat: We all need to hear messages multiple times for their importance to sink in and stick with us. By repeating regularly and communicating the same message, you are able to drive home your main points and reduce misunderstandings.

Let BOxD help you explore ways to mitigate the common roadblocks to genuine leadership at your organization.

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