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Transparency Isn't a Magic Trust-Builder

Three workplace transparency tips that build trust

Curious times we live in—on one hand transparency is a hot topic and people are clamoring for more; on the other hand, people proliferate rude, inappropriate, or mean-spirit barrages behind anonymous twitter handles, postings, and email. It seems people want other people, not necessarily themselves, to be transparent.

Workplace transparency is complicated. There are those who see it as open-book management; others as translucent information sharing. Some claim it's fair process in decision making, rewards, and resource allocation; others as "no more secrets." Being transparent at work is as different as the people who call for it.

Some think transparency applies only to financial disclosure to investors, regulatory compliance, or in economic transactions. Others think transparency means eliminating hidden agendas or enabling others to see actions taken. And still others think it's a buzz-word, such as reporters labeling it a "transparency clash" when not given "the right" to watch President Obama play golf with Tiger Woods.

Some people find transparency threatening, especially at work, while others find it exhilarating. Some confuse transparency with authenticity, or think transparency means communicating everything or knowing everything they want to know.

So what's a leader trying to build trust to do? First, understand that transparency doesn't automatically build trust.

  • Transparency is not a magic elixir for trust building. Just because you're transparent on an issue or process, it doesn't mean you build trust. Transparency and trust are not cause and effect.
  • Transparency that isn't thoughtful can diminish trust.
  • In the context of creating trust in your work group, transparency must be thoughtful. It isn't knowing everything or telling everything.

What is thoughtful transparency?

People who operate with thoughtful transparency consider the reason for forthright communication, the purpose as it were. As long as that purpose isn't self-serving and is grounded in doing what's right without violating confidentiality, it's thoughtful transparency.

If communication shifts to a self-serving agenda, or a tell-everything-you-know regardless of impact on others or the purpose behind it, it's far from trust-enhancing.

Thoughtful transparency is about creating an environment where people can trust they'll have the pertinent information they need to:

  • Do great work
  • Make informed decisions
  • Enter into genuine relationships
  • Operate with self-alignment and integrity

But, how do you use thoughtful transparency – honest communication that elevates the connection, message, and trust? Here are three transparency tips that will enhance your trust building communication:

1. Use vulnerable storytelling with appropriate boundaries. I was a senior manager for a national company before I ever shared with staff that despite a bachelors from Stanford and a masters from the University of Michigan, I'd been fired from my first professional job. Eventually I realized failing experiences like that, and others in my career, had been stepping stones for success and were worth sharing. The key is "sharing appropriately," notes Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, "Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust, and disengagement."

2. Respect that confidentiality matters. Confidentiality has an important place at work. You can't have authentic trust and genuine relationships without a practice that involves confidentiality. Sometimes you can reference you're not at liberty to talk about something; other times even that's not possible. In the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, "In almost every profession—whether it's law or journalism, finance or medicine or academia or running a small business—people rely on the space of trust that confidentiality provides. When someone breaches that trust, we are all worse off for it."

3. Demonstrate you want the best for others. Do you let a staff member know his aspirations for promotion aren't going to happen if he stays working for you so he can look elsewhere, or do you allow him to harbor a dream because you don't want to lose him? When you want the best for others, feedback springs from a place of integrity. It's kind, considerate, and helpful. When it is, it builds trust. Feedback is opinion, not fact, and when offered with compassionate intention, it's also a gift.

Thoughtful transparency enhances trust because it builds confidence in your good judgment, integrity, and positive intentions.

More about the trust currency you need in the new workplace and how to build it:

You'll find more trust building approaches in my new book, Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, November 2013).

About the Author
Nan S Russell

Nan S. Russell is a former corporate executive and the author of four books, including, Trust, Inc. and The Titleless Leader.

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