Transparent Communication Alone Won’t Cut It

Callie Rushton, Director of ImplementationEmployee Engagement, LeadershipLeave a Comment

This is the first of two blogs that explores the topic of transparent communication in the workplace. Here, we demonstrate why it’s more important than ever for leaders to prioritize transparency—and why your efforts may be failing to revitalize trust.

We live in an Age of Distrust.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

  • People are abandoning Facebook in droves following numerous privacy and ethics scandals have plagued the social media giant in the last year.
  • Less than one third of Americans now trust their government “to do what is right,” down from 77 percent who felt they could in 1964.
  • The term “fake news” has become all but ubiquitous, and doubt has been cast on reporting from even the most historically revered media outlets, such as the New York Times.

These are but a few examples of trends that have arisen in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which led people to eschew Wall Street, Washington, or both, depending on their political inclinations. With so many institutions under fire, it’s not surprising that leaders across sectors have begun taking calls for greater transparency more seriously.

Transparent communication is widely (and rightly) hailed as a means of rebuilding lost trust. When leaders are able to share their organization’s vision and clearly demonstrate how each employee contributes to it, everyone feels more connected to their work—and the organization as a whole is better off. In fact, we find that (1) confidence in leadership and (2) communication of an inspiring vision from leadership are two of the biggest drivers of employee engagement across industries.

Additionally, when leaders are forthright about the future, employees are more likely to keep the faith—and stick around. This is true even when it’s bad news. As employees begin to believe that leaders will be honest with them no matter what, they will be more willing to tolerate their calculated risk-taking and mistake-making because they view them as trustworthy. Communicating openly and honestly can help leaders appear more human and vulnerable, a major asset in a time when people are inclined to talk about authority figures as “them,” antagonistic to “us.”

But simply informing employees about an organization’s financial health or strategic plans will not be enough to reverse this erosion of trust on its own.

Let’s be clear: in no way are we suggesting that transparent communication from leadership doesn’t matter. It absolutely does, and we find evidence to support this over and over. In fact, receiving transparent communication from leadership is one of the greatest indicators of employee engagement across the board.

Rather, we are suggesting that many attempts at transparent communication are missing a vital component that would move them from the realm of symbolic transparency (i.e., doing something because you’re told that’s what people want) into that of authentic transparency.

This missing piece? Listening. In this Age of Distrust, telling is out; listening is in. Communication has to be a two-way street if the aim is to rebuild trust.

What does this mean for organizational leaders?

To begin, it’s probably a good idea to ask your employees for some feedback about your communication strategy. After all, transparency is all about perception. Leaders may think they are killing the transparency game by delivering fancy presentations that detail each department’s quarterly performance and the strategic priorities for the next cycle. But these types of demonstrations may not be effective in signaling to employees that transparency and integrity are truly organizational values.

Consider implementing a short survey that dives deep into this topic of transparency and communication from senior leaders. “How are we doing at communication?” will give you some insight, but following up with more specific questions like “What information do you most want to be receiving from leadership that you aren’t currently getting?” or “Are the organization’s core values coming across in communications from leadership?” will reveal a lot more. Keeping your focus tight around this topic will help you get the meaningful information you need to improve your strategy.

Now that you’ve collected this feedback, what comes next? In the second blog, we will outline three more ways to infuse your efforts at transparency with more listening. If used effectively, these strategies can have a profound impact on your employees’ trust in you and other leaders, and increase their overall engagement in their work.