Transparent Teams: The Dark Side Of Light
With the advent of technology, social media, and the new “reputation economy” touted in business today, there is a clear call for leaders to be increasingly transparent. “Be honest, be open, be vulnerable!” they say. In my roles as leader, leadership coach, and follower of leaders, I see so much that this rallying cry for transparency implies that I’m compelled to peel back the layers on transparency itself. While the “what” is exciting and progressive, there is a lot that I’m curious about regarding the “why” and “how.” Most importantly, I wonder, what impact does a transparent leadership culture have on individuals and the teams in which they work? And, how can we ensure it is a positive one?
First, a definition. The word “transparent,” according to Merriam-Webster means, “having the property of transmitting rays of light through its substance so that bodies situated beyond or behind can be distinctly seen.” In other words, transparency is the act of being clear about your intentions, values, feelings, and commitments – i.e. who you are and how you make decisions. The more people know you, the more they can trust and value you.
Now, let’s take a look at the transparency trend in the realm of leadership. According to Forbes’ contributor Glenn Llopis, leaders who are transparent with their people gain five significant benefits: enhanced problem solving, ability to build teams easier, authentic relationships, higher trust, and increased levels of organizational performance. Llopis argues that workers today are disillusioned and in need of security more than ever. Information from their leaders about what’s really going on – for the company and its leaders – will enable them to “plan and protect themselves” against uncertainty. CEO Halley Bock takes it a step further, suggesting that truth telling is critical to sustainable learning organizations. She references the Papau New Guinea term “mokita,” which means “that which everyone knows and no one speaks of.” For Bock, leaders actually cause harm to their organizations when mistakes are not exposed, dealt with candidly, or worse, covered up. Ideally, the number of mokitas in a team or organization is few, and those that exist are quickly brought to light.
Makes sense to me. An avid truth seeker myself, I couldn’t agree more with the demands for openness and honesty. Wearing my heart on my sleeve is standard practice – why beat around the bush when you can create connection and clarity so quickly? And yet…
I’ve seen the challenges of building transparent teams and organizations first hand. I am intimately familiar with the pangs of regret from putting yourself on the line, otherwise known as a “vulnerability hangover.” Brene' Brown covers this beautifully in her book, Daring Greatly. I know what happens when trust is broken, when a team is not willing to deal with the truth courageously together, or when transparency becomes a weapon in the fight for survival. I believe strongly that there is a way to be transparent AND nurture emotional safety, to build trust and collaboration WITHOUT creating disillusioned, wounded human beings. It requires not extreme sensitivity but awareness; courage, resilience, and vulnerability.
Let me share two stories from FMG Leading: one, an executive team overcomes tremendous interpersonal conflict together in an afternoon; and two, a high-trust, highly transparent executive team unintentionally breeds an organizational culture marked by competition and conflict-ridden teams.
1. We knew this healthcare organization was in trouble. Its executive leaders were outright warring, no clear strategy was in place, and the financial state proved it. On organizational surveys, employees described the company as “toxic,” with many pointing to the conflict at the top as a significant pain point. My colleague and I began working with the CEO and his top 11 executives at the end of a year marked by brutal change and blistering workloads. The leaders were exhausted, burned out, and in pain. They were also really good people. We began our engagement with leadership 360° surveys, a Leader’s Pulse survey (mini-engagement survey for the top 30), and coaching around a powerful personality profile called the Enneagram. When we met with the group for our first team offsite, we had already spent hours with each leader, getting to know them intimately and hearing their needs/ concerns. Over 2 ½ days, my colleague and I were able to create a space in which the leaders felt safe to be themselves, openly share their fears and dreams, and “lay down their armor,” as the CEO noted. In other words, we invited their human-ness back into the room. Transparency thrived because people felt safe and valued. Leaders dealt directly with the conflict, used tools to understand themselves and each other, and reestablished their commitment to one another. The vulnerability and healing were palpable. The team was restored, and transparency a welcome ally.
2. All organizations have a unique DNA – this pharmaceutical company is profoundly wired for heart and candor. Their executive team engages in intense dialogue regularly; they have close personal and professional relationships; and they trust each other intimately. These leaders invest in leader and culture development year after year – they “get it.” Transparency is currency and they cultivate it in droves. Yet a peculiar undercurrent has begun to take shape at lower levels in the organization. Instead of creating an open, supportive environment at the manager and director level, this culture of transparency has resulted in fierce competition. Where no “politics” exist at the highest level, scheming and maneuvering are rampant at lower levels. I believe that many factors play into this phenomenon, such as certain hiring practices and work design trends, yet one thing is clear – when transparency is not coupled with a demand for collaboration, vulnerability can be used to pit one against another. Conflict on functional teams, as well as between teams, abounds. While these lower leaders are likely unconscious or unintentional in creating this dynamic (they, too, are incredible, worthy people), without a strong imperative (and metrics) that marry transparency with emotional safety and interdependence, the results can undermine the entire operation. Thus, the executives find themselves running a company with great, unfulfilled potential. Until they figure out how to support a transparent culture appropriately, they’ll struggle to achieve its ultimate promise – great trust, collaboration, and high performance.
As a leader interested in becoming more transparent yourself, or in building an organization marked by transparency, ask yourself these questions: To what end will transparency support my/the organization’s goals? What structures can I/we put in place to support openness with support (emotional and structural)? And, when is transparency serving my organization’s broader goals and when is it serving my own?
As with all things, awareness as to “why” you behave (or want to behave) in a particular manner is often the make-or-break between creating a positive leadership impact and an unintentionally harmful one for your people. Lead wisely.