How transparent should you be as a leader?

A group of people talking in a meeting room.

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I was sitting in the lounge the other day waiting for my flight home. I’d been facilitating some leadership workshops and had finished ahead of schedule, so I’d arrived at the airport early. I was relaxing and just staring out the window watching the planes. 

Two people came over and sat down opposite me. 

She looked like a seasoned business traveler – very at home in the lounge. On the other hand, he was much more starry-eyed – clearly very excited by the dinner ‘buffet’ options he had just spotted. He looked at her almost as if for permission. She nodded with a smile, and he got up and returned with a glass of red wine. 

They raised their glasses, and whilst I wasn’t eavesdropping, it was impossible not to hear her singing his praises for a meeting that had evidently gone very well. It took me back to my very first interstate trip that I had taken with a boss who wasn’t so forthcoming with positive feedback at the time. 

I was impressed with how thorough she was in her de-brief, and he was very humbled by the praise. 

The conversation then took a bit of a turn when she started sharing her thoughts about how she didn’t think any of his peers would have been able to conduct themselves as professionally as he had in the meeting. She even hinted that she wasn’t sure everyone in the cohort he had joined the firm with would ‘cut it’. I couldn’t believe it when she even named those she had ear-marked for a potential early exit. 

He looked uneasy, and when she got up to grab herself some cheese and crackers, I glanced over towards him, and he smiled back awkwardly as I headed off to the gate. 

On the plane, I was seated at the window hoping I might even have the row to myself, when sure enough, my friends from the lounge came and sat down next to me. He was in the middle seat, and she was on the aisle. 

If I thought the earlier conversation in the lounge had been a bit inappropriate, she was now telling him what she thought of some of the other partners in the firm. 

I was smiling underneath my mask and his “awkward” look from before had morphed into more of a plea to “get me out of here”. I could see he was now feeling extremely uncomfortable. 

He then made a very bold move and said, “It’s been a super long day. I’m just going to zone out for a while”. And he put his headphones on that he’d been wearing around his neck and closed his eyes. 

I wanted to shake his hand, but at the same time, I wanted to lean across and ask her what on earth she thought she was doing. 

I have always believed that a leader should never be accused of over communicating and personally I have stuck to the philosophy of ‘telling the team everything or telling them nothing at all’. After all, the danger in only telling your team members half the story is that they will most likely fill in the gaps and create their own situation in their head.  

So, if you told your team that funding was around the corner and the potential investor pulls out, don’t keep that information from the team assuming they will forget what you told them in the first place. Or if you told the team you were making an offer to an amazing candidate and for whatever reason the candidate turns the job down, bring the team up to speed as quickly as possible. 

In the majority of teams, too many things are just swept under the carpet on the assumption that people don’t need to be over informed. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Whilst in most organisations there is a desire for leaders to proactively share where the company is at (whether the news is good or bad), at what point does this highly sought-after transparency potentially backfire and make the people you are responsible for feel awkward and uncomfortable? 

Sure, a leader should never be accused of over communicating … when it comes to business strategy, growth plans, new customer acquisitions, etc. However, talking about one team member in front of another is a big no no, and sharing information that is not common knowledge about other team members is not conducive to any respectable leader. 

Remember, your role as a leader is to instill confidence in your team members, to gain their respect and trust in your ability to guide the team.  

Your role is not to put anyone in an awkward situation, or to make anyone think that if you’re speaking so openly to them about other people, then what must you be saying about them to others in the business behind closed doors? 

Being a transparent leader means being open and honest with your employees even if this makes you feel somewhat exposed or vulnerable.  

Remember that vulnerability is one of the most valuable traits of leaders today. However, at no point should this transparency make any one of your team members feel vulnerable, scared, or compromised. After all, you don’t want to create a culture where your people are afraid that you will share information that they may have shared with you in confidence. 

Of course, nobody wants to be kept entirely in the dark either. 

Transparent leadership helps to eliminate employees’ fear of the unknown as well as any unnecessary nasty surprises.  

Your team members want to know (and have the right to know) the status quo inside the company. And, as mentioned above, they would rather know if things aren’t quite going according to plan rather than being completely blindsided, particularly if the bad news could impact their future within the organisation. 

I have no doubt that the manager from the lounge in the scenario above was either trying to make her junior employee feel less intimidated while sitting alongside a very senior player in the firm, or that she was trying to come across like ‘one of the cool kids’. But she was taking transparent leadership to the extreme and it completely backfired. 

For some reason, there are still many leaders responsible for teams today who view transparency as a weakness; who feel that if they are transparent about the state of the business, that they are losing control and the power they may otherwise have had by keeping information away from the broader business, or by keeping their cards close to their chest. 

Leading by paranoia can’t be a pleasant way to run a business either. But there’s a big difference between ‘no secrets’ and ‘spilling the beans’ – particularly when you are trying to build a culture of trust and respect. 

Part of the transparency piece also comes down to how you choose to communicate as a leader. 

Are you seen as a leader who regularly hides behind email, Teams or Slack?

While you might feel that firing out dozens of messages every day is keeping the team in the loop, when all communication is in writing, some of your team members will start wondering what you’re hiding from them. Or are you a leader who is regularly engaging with your team either in person (if your team members are all in the office), or via video (either synchronously or asynchronously) if you are looking after a distributed team? 

Believe it or not, roaming around the office, or engaging with your team face-to-face (even via video) is a huge part of leading transparently. After all, you can’t really demonstrate transparency without being visible to those around you.

However, being transparent and visible in good times, but then disappearing and hiding behind email when times are tough won’t help you on the trust-building front.

You don’t want your people to view you as a transparent communicator of good news only. After all, it’s often the way leaders share difficult news that cements their credibility (and reputation) in the eyes of their employees. 

Embrace transparency in leadership and, in return, your employees will give you their loyalty, advocacy, commitment and trust. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders understand the importance of leading transparently. 

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