What Does it Mean to Be Transparent in the Workplace?

Let me ask you… When you hear “transparency”, what comes to mind?

It’s said that transparency in the workplace builds trust, which leads to better communication, fewer interpersonal issues, greater employee retention, and many other benefits.

But, what does it actually mean to practice transparency? What does it look like? Is it possible to overshare? What about confidentiality? What if everyone else rejects the idea?

I get many questions from many different people. Of course, every situation is unique and there will be different kinks and quirks to work through. But, there are some general guidelines for workplace transparency that can help you start exploring the benefits, even if you’re the only one on board (for now). If you’ve already begun practicing transparency, see this as guidance for how to improve transparency in the workplace.

What is Transparency in the Workplace?

Transparency means not having anything to hide, which is different from having things that should be kept private or confidential. It means embracing all of yourself – your shadow and your light – and living as that person, as your whole self, in both your personal and professional life.

The person who has something to hide, has something to hurt. It isn’t that people set out to hurt you, but what you try to hide, or refuse to accept within yourself, becomes a trigger, easily set off by whatever is going on around you. It also creates an energy of distrust that people feel, intuitively, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Whatever you try to keep behind your mask (your figurative mask, not Covid mask) actually becomes more visible. Let’s say you see someone talking down to others while bragging about themselves. It doesn’t take much to realize that their arrogance is a mask, hiding insecurities about their own worthiness. By trying to hide them, those insecurities actually become glaring red flags, continually on display.

On the other hand, if that same person were honest with themselves about their inner struggles, spoke to themselves with kindness, and outloud said occasional things like, “I hope I’m doing the right thing here. I sometimes worry about that.” … Wouldn’t our image of them change? We’d no longer see them as insecure, but as honest, strong and human. They would be much more at peace with themselves as well.

I really like this definition from the Four Winds: “Transparency means establishing congruence between who you say you are and who you really are. It means walking your talk.”

That’s what’s at the heart of workplace transparency. It’s owning who you are with love, and showing up as that person, so that your energy can be directed towards something better than hiding what makes you human.

The Importance of Transparency in the Workplace

We hide more than insecurities at work. Often, we hide our true strengths, talents, values and purpose because we feel uncomfortable or afraid. We worry about what people will say or about opening a box that can’t be closed again.

When we hide these things, we aren’t bringing our best selves forward. Not only can our work suffer as a result, our well being and happiness at work suffer as well, as do our relationships with the people around us.

It also isn’t just arrogance that we hide behind. Not speaking up, people pleasing, procrastinating, impatience with others, staying in our comfort zone… all of these things are “mask behaviours”. They are things we do to hide our true selves and stay safe. The problem is, safe means stuck.

When people get stuck, teams get stuck, and the whole organization can get stuck.

A great example is one explored in The Arbinger Institute’s, The Outward Mindset, which reviews the case of Ford Motor Company which, in 2006, was losing about $17 billion a year. Yes, BILLION. A major contributor, as the new CEO, Alan Mulally discovered, was that it was not safe to fail at Ford. Mistakes were grounds for firing and everyone knew it.

Mulally implemented a traffic light system whereby leaders were expected to present a weekly report on their status with anything on track coded in green, anything at risk coded yellow, and anything off track coded red. Well, it was no surprise that at first, everyone reported green. Nobody believed it was safe to be honest – to be transparent – so they hid any issues. Until finally, one person took a risk. They reported RED. To everyone’s surprise, the new CEO thanked him for his transparency. To even greater surprise, the person who reported a red issue wasn’t fired! That’s when things finally started to turn around for Ford.

If lack of transparency can result in a $17 billion annual loss, and cultivating transparency can bring a company – even a company as big as Ford – back from such massive losses, just imagine what it can do for every other organization across the globe!

Transparent Communication in the Workplace 

“Stuckness” is often driven (and upheld) by communication issues, and lack of transparency is a HUGE communication issue.

Why? For two main reasons:

  1. It puts us in battleground mode instead of co-creation mode. In battleground mode, we’re either on the defensive or offensive. Or both. We put our energy into staying safe, holding back, worrying about how we’ll be perceived, etc. Or, we put energy into keeping other people on their toes, deflecting, acting “big”, and so on. If we drop those barriers and let ourselves simply be, all that energy can be redirected towards listening, understanding, and co-creating.
  2. We do not speak our truth, or hold space for other people’s truth. Truth sets us all free. It allows us to be at ease with ourselves, to speak and act with integrity, and to be trustworthy for others, inspiring them to speak more truth as well. Especially as leaders, we have to be the first to speak our truth. We have to do it consistently and courageously, or it simply will not feel safe for others.

Everyone around you has their own truth, waiting for a safe space to emerge. When you open up to sharing your truth from a place of curiosity, you become that safe space, and that allows more truth to emerge.

Speaking of his emotional experience guiding Starbucks through the 2008 recession, former CEO, Howard Schultz said, “I think the currency of leadership is transparency. You’ve got to be truthful. I don’t think you should be vulnerable every day, but there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.”

Practicing transparency is a powerful leadership skill and a critical element of better workplace communication, more authentic conversations, greater collaboration, and an overall work environment of trust that leads to higher productivity, employee retention, creativity, ingenuity, self-management, and so much more.

How to be Transparent in the Workplace

So… what does it actually look like to be transparent in a professional setting? It comes down to integrity – speaking truthfully, respecting the other person as a human being, owning your mist-takes, being open about when you can’t share, and so on.

Here are a few examples of what that could look like:

Avoiding Transparency Embracing Transparency
“Don’t listen to rumours. I’ll tell you when there’s something to be told.” “Many of you have heard the rumours about potential cutbacks. I can’t share specifics at this time, but I can tell you that conversations are ongoing and the goal is to finalize a plan in the next two days. I know this is a stressful time. Please come to me if you want to talk.”
“Yes, our team can take that on.” “I need to speak with my team first. Together, we’ll have a better idea if that would fit our current bandwidth. When can I get back to you?”
“Let’s not worry about that right now.” “I don’t know the answer to that. Let me ask around.”
“I don’t have time for this conversation.” “I have a lot on my plate right now and I feel like I can’t give this conversation the focus it deserves. Let’s reconnect first thing tomorrow morning.”
“It’s fine, we’ll make it work.” “I messed up. I thought that would work and it didn’t, and now we have to play catch up to make our deadline. I’m really sorry and I’m in this with you all. Where can I start?”
[Saying nothing at all] “I have an idea. It’s a bit out there, and I’d like to explore the possibilities.”

What you may have gathered from these examples is how common it is to avoid transparency, but also how ok it is to embrace it instead. Putting transparency into practice might feel scary, awkward or unnatural at first and that’s ok. You can even be transparent about that! “I’m working on being more transparent. It feels weird, but I’m committing to sticking with it.”

What’s really coming through with transparency is truth. And truth always brings more truth. You’ll likely become more truthful with yourself, and others are more likely to share their truth with you. Truth puts people at ease, and it’s when we’re at ease that our real brilliance can shine.

How to Promote Transparency in the Workplace

It all starts with you. You cannot control how other people choose to be, but you can exercise your own influence. You can take 100% responsibility for how you choose to show up, for stepping into integrity, and for embracing transparency as a leadership skill.

The bottom line is, if you want employees to feel safe, seen, heard and respected, you need to blaze that trail. If you want them to be honest and raw, YOU need to be honest and raw. If you want them to open up about failures or mistakes so that everyone can progress, YOU need to open up about failures and mistakes.

So, before trying to encourage transparency in others, look inward to the work you may need to do. Specifically, focus on:

This inner work will build the core strength needed to fully embrace transparency, and give you clarity into your inner experience, because it’s a lot easier to speak truthfully when you know what your truth is ;)

Once you’ve started doing your inner work, you can turn your attention outward. To promote transparency in your workplace:

  1. Practice it intentionally and consistently.
  2. Talk about your experience openly, especially any hurdles you encounter.
  3. Be conscious of how you respond when others speak truthfully.
  4. Learn how asking questions can encourage transparency.
  5. Keep an open mind and leave judgement out of the equation. People remember how you respond (or don’t respond) and that has a huge impact on the direction of the conversation, and the overall relationship.
  6. Recognize, openly, the courage it takes when someone speaks transparently.
  7. Embrace difficulty, chaos and uncertainty. Show that you put people and honesty first, and not just when it’s easy.
  8. Explore your own mental models and those of others to better understand what might hold people back.
  9. Acknowledge updates, changes or rumours immediately by bringing them out into the open. Don’t let anything fester.
  10. Work at building a culture of integration to create a sense of belonging and safety for the people you lead.

Above all, remember that transparency isn’t just for when you have the answers. In fact, it can be especially powerful when you don’t have them. If you don’t know the answer, or you’re feeling anxious, or you’ve noticed a problem within the team, but don’t have a ready solution… bring it out anyway! As humans, we are so perceptive. Even if we can’t clearly identify “he’s scared of something” or “she’s holding back”, we notice changes in mood, energy, tone of voice and so on. Bringing it out shows people that it’s ok to not know and that it’s safe to ask, to think out loud, or to share a perspective.

A Quick Practice for Embracing Transparency

Transparency isn’t easy. As much as it’s become a buzzword, it still isn’t the norm in terms of what’s practiced in many workplaces. That sense of moving outside the norm can often feel like the biggest hurdle of all.

Be courageous and be kind. With yourself and with those around you.

I’d like to leave you with a quick practice to help you start embracing transparency:

  1. Sit in silence. Close your eyes, if it feels comfortable.
  2. Place your hand over your heart and take a few deep breaths.
  3. On the inhale, say to yourself, “I am…” On the exhale, say, “… my breath.” I am my breath.
  4. When you feel relaxed, ask yourself, “What makes me uncomfortable? What am I afraid for people to see?”
  5. Come right up close to it in your heart and mind. Look at your discomfort or fear from all sides. Talk to yourself about it. Ask yourself, “What’s scary about this? What do I gain from keeping it hidden? What could I gain from dropping this mask?”
  6. If you feel yourself getting anxious, return to your breath. “I am… my breath.”
  7. Then, return to your discomfort and try again.

The more comfortable you get being with your discomfort, the more comfortable it becomes. Like a gritty piece of sand in an oyster, it gradually becomes a smooth, beautiful pearl. If you’re struggling with this, you may want to take it a step further and practice a fire ceremony to help you shift any difficult emotions.

All parts of you are worthy. When you believe that to the point that you feel it, transparency with others becomes second nature.

If you would like guidance practicing transparency or developing a culture of transparency in your team or organization, I invite you to connect with me.