Greasing the Wheels: How Embracing Transparency Removes Fear from the Workplace

Kristie Castanera

Imagine this: After a meeting to go over your company’s new employee handbook, the head of HR opens the floor for feedback. You have a burning question but are too afraid of sounding stupid to ask. The group sits in silence for one excruciatingly awkward minute. As you leave, one of your colleagues asks you the very same question you were wondering about. Neither of you has the answer.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, it probably does ­– according to Gordon Dmytriw, our Vice President of Consulting Services, communication is among the top three areas where companies seek improvement. However, he believes that these instances of miscommunication are all symptoms of a bigger problem: a lack of transparency. This incites a fear to speak up, which devalues honesty and dissuades employees from voicing their thoughts, needs and ideas.

What is transparency, anyway?

At its core, transparency is about speaking up and being intentional about communicating your honest thoughts and ideas. In addition to always striving for clear, effective communication, transparent behavior can also encompass these four areas:

  1. Asking (stupid) questions
  2. Having the courage to initiate a difficult conversation
  3. Being open about your weaknesses, as well as the weaknesses of others
  4. Sharing your ideas, opinions and input - every time

Once you're intentional about communicating honestly, you can begin to create a culture of transparency.

Why is transparency important?

Gord puts it simply: “A transparent environment engenders trust. And in that trust, you have the opportunity to be more effective and more efficient day to day.”

The consequences of a lack of trust and transparency are far-reaching. “Trust is the grease we rely on to make the wheels of commerce move more smoothly,” says Gord, and lack of trust creates a number of issues: victim language, playing the "blame game" and reluctance to share ideas, for instance. These problems act like grit in the system, which can ultimately hinder an organization's ability to survive in a competitive market.

By contrast, a transparent culture embraces open communication - making yourself vulnerable by asking questions, encouraging colleagues to better themselves and initiating difficult conversations - thereby eliminating grit and improving efficiency overall. But it's not a natural thing for most – you need to provide a safety net that allows employees to feel comfortable being so open.

So how can your organization become more transparent?

The path to transparency is different for every company. Gord says it's helpful to think of transparency as a continuum: some companies may benefit from a high degree of transparency, while others, such as law firms and other organizations that require a certain level of confidentiality, may benefit from less. Still, there are five steps all companies can take to create a culture of transparency:

1. Be intentional

Your culture exists whether you develop it or not, so to make a difference, you must make the conscious choice to be transparent. Identify the level of transparency you need for your company, and then choose to develop and nurture this value in every facet of your organization.

2. Introduce the language of transparency

Plant the seed by beginning to use language that speaks about the need to be transparent and its importance to a well-functioning environment. Here at Think Shift, we’ve included transparency as one of our core values. Phrases like, “I’m going to call myself out for not doing the prework for this meeting,” or “I’d like to give you kudos for handling a difficult client conversation so calmly,” are thrown around often, as it’s very important to us to be open about shortcomings and successes alike.

3. Identify supporting behaviors

What actions should you and your employees take to become more transparent? At Think Shift, for instance, we work hard to practice calling ourselves - and each other - up, not out. This means that if I (or someone else) falls short of expectations, I will bring attention to it in a kind, constructive way to help myself (or a colleague) rise to a higher standard.

4. Walk the talk

Have you ever been really excited about making a change – starting a new fitness regimen, having family dinners regularly – but failed to follow through? Your company won’t know you’re serious about creating a culture of transparency unless you embrace those changes first. Once you identify language and behaviors that support transparency, your leadership must model them consistently. After some time, others will begin to mimic these actions, and this will trickle down throughout the organization.

5. Celebrate success

Organizations don’t change – people do. And we all know that old habits die hard (how many New Year’s resolutions have you ever kept?). Positive reinforcement is an easy way to encourage people to embrace behaviors that support transparency. When you see someone calling themselves out on a missed commitment, or having a difficult conversation with a colleague, or even being the first to ask a question during a meeting, celebrate! At Think Shift, we give out Kudos cards – little notes that describe something awesome a colleague has done – that we share in front of the whole company during our weekly Friday huddle. Pick something that resonates with your company personally, and make it a habit.

Comfortable employees care more about their workplace and will, in turn, give more of themselves. Create that atmosphere of transparency and trust, allow your employees to come out of their shells, and you will unleash their full potential - and therefore, the full potential of the company itself.

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