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The murky world of transparency

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Note: This is the first in a three-part series on improving transparency.

Access to the workplace budget can make people feel like they are in the know or out of the loop. But depending on the situation, those classifications may not apply. For example, I used to send my proposed budget to stakeholders to make sure my assumptions about the coming year was consistent with their actual needs. Transparency with my budget both built trust with stakeholders and generated feedback improved the program. Yet, some peers were horrified because they believed hording information was power.

Transparency is often only thought of as a way to prove no wrong doing is happening, which is a lost opportunity. Below is a discussion of what transparency is and when it is worth the trouble to build it into processes. The remainder of the series will discuss how to plan on transparency and how to communicate effectively so it works for you rather than against your intentions.

Transparency doesn’t just mean honestly or a lack of corruption. Transparency is a strategy for building trust between an organization and its stakeholders by forfeiting secrecy in exchange for proactive self-accountability and timely and appropriate communications. You are not transparent because you operate by the books and hold yourself to high standards of quality and ethics. You are transparent because:

  • You’ve designed your processes to communicate accurate and in-context information to the right people at the right time.
  • Understand that being transparent about why and how you do things isn’t always appropriate or beneficial so you rely on criteria to determine when transparency is required, recommended, unnecessary or inappropriate.
  • Execute transparency effectively so it builds trust, upgrades decisions, affects culture, and reduces workloads.

 

When an organization does a good job with transparency you don’t even notice because your experience feels natural and seamless. When an organization does a terrible job, they make things harder for the people they serve and are served by. A lack of transparency is most noticeable when customers are stuck in the customer service merry-go-round (e.g. cable, healthcare, etc.) or when something about a company seems contradictory or counter-intuitive (e.g. employer, volunteer board, charity, etc.).

Designing systems for transparency saves you work in the long term. Period. Here are three examples of how being transparent can be an effective strategy to build trust and reduce workload. As these examples demonstrate, it isn’t just about being accountable for one’s behavior but also when/how you communicate.

A few examples

Designing systems for transparency saves you work in the long term. Period. Here are three examples of how being transparent can be an effective strategy to build trust and reduce workload. As these examples demonstrate, it isn’t just about being accountable for one’s behavior but also when/how you communicate.

ExampleNot TransparentTransparent
The airplane can’t take off until a minor mechanical issue is resolved which is causing a long delay.The airline staff keeps extending the delay every 30 minutes but never articulates the cause or attempts to set expectations for passengers. Passengers who miss their connection are rebooked upon arrival at their destination which causes further delays. The airline is honest from the start about the delay and provides real time updates. While waiting, they rebook passengers who will miss their connection so they don’t experience additional delays.
Employee salaries have been a well-kept secret but rumors are spreading internally.Leadership believes no one would really understand the complexity of what to pay everyone and communicate that as such. However, some employees believe there are serious disparities and keep the topic on everyone’s minds which starts to increase the turnover rate. Leadership determines that this is a good time to formalize the process classifying jobs and salary ranges. Because the process provides an opportunity for participation and transparent communications, most staff are on board with the changes even if they do not benefit them directly.
A software company is recruiting for multiple positions using an online system, but the system works slowly and takes applicants a long time to complete. Some applicants don’t complete the process because of the system and aren’t able to talk to anyone in HR about it. When they finally submit, they are told on the screen ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’. They still receive many calls daily when applicants feel like they are in the HR black hole. They are having a hard time filling those positions.Human Resources has the system altered to set improve candidate expectations before they begin. They can now also login to see where they are in the hiring process which greatly reduces calls to HR.

When to strive for transparency

Remember when your parents used to say “because I told you so” and you swore you would never give such a vague response to your own children? Now that you’re a parent, you get why they said that (and say it yourself sometimes). We say this to our children because they don’t need the backstory and it is not up for negotiation. Sometimes, this also applies to grownups. In its simplest form, you should be transparent when others are entitled to the backstory or have access to the decision-making process. Being transparent does take resources and can have consequences if you don’t implement it correctly. So, if any of the criteria below are met, it is likely appropriate and advantageous to build transparency into the process:

  • Show that there is no corruption or conflict of interest
  • Take public responsibility for decisions and subsequent actions
  • Demonstrate that decisions are made based on evidence and thought out processes
  • Reduce stakeholders anxiety about how they are impacted by a situation
  • Prevent negative impact on organizational culture by withholding information
  • Significantly reduce workload of troubleshooting a lack of transparency
  • Potential benefits for transparency exceed the commitment needed to achieve

 
Transparency and collaboration have something very important in common: they are both a strategy for getting better results. The key to productivity in both is planning. Next article in the series: Planning on Transparency

About Megan Wilmoth

Megan Wilmoth is the president of Planosaurus, a women-owned consulting firm that helps organizations eliminate the common threats to collaboration they affectionately call Organizational Monsters so that projects, programs, boards, committees, and teams can consistently achieve collaborative productivity. With twenty years of experience, she has provided a wide range of planning and management services to organizations ranging from Fortune 500, large and medium-sized companies, trade associations, non-profits, and government agencies. She is fueled by quality coffee and the opportunity to make the thankless job of managing collaborative managers easier.

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  • Megan Wilmoth,
  • February 1, 2016

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