Leadership Trend – Honesty and Transparency

Loyalty and trustAccording to Forbes contributor Dan Schawbel, one of the ten most significant 2015 workplace trends for 2015 is this one:  “Honesty becomes a revered leadership trait.”  After the initial temptation to dismiss it with a snicker, we wondered what made Dan elevate that one behavioral trait to a top position in a sea of more statistically-defined trends such as hiring practices.

Schawbel goes on to say that the generations entering the workforce are demanding trust through honesty and transparency.  He noted that in a recent study, a majority of Gen Y and Gen Z respondents identify honesty as the most important quality for being a good leader.  And another study shows that honesty and transparency in the workplace outrank any other criteria (including family-friendly and enjoyable atmospheres) for job applicants as they assess potential employers.

Well, those are noble words, but just what does it really mean to be honest and transparent as a leader?  And if it’s going to be so important to the workforce of the future, what is different about the expectations now than in the past?  What are the challenges for a leader in meeting those expectations?  There is plenty of hype about the value of these traits, but not much solid definition or advice on how to assure that you as a leader are stoking your organization with the honesty and transparency Schawbel believes will be critical.

Part of the problem with getting a good understanding of what people expect is that the vocabulary around this subject cross-references each other.  Transparency is defined using the word ‘honesty’.  Honesty is defined using the word ‘transparency’.  And on and on in something that feels circular, but no closer to definition of the goal.

There are also tripping points.  What are the limits of honesty when, for example, an employee has been terminated for cause?  How transparent should the company be when the risk is that a leak of information would send the company’s stock price tumbling?  Is there a realistic point at which information sharing becomes more of a distraction for employees than a benefit?  Can partial information, when shared, create more anxiety than it offers in honest knowledge during company difficulties or major changes?  These are real-life dilemmas for leaders, in the face of expectations that are not always thoroughly considered.

So let’s try to get at the ‘essential essentials’.  Just what is it that is revered, and that will be the litmus test for leaders looking to be achieve this semi-divine status?  If you read the hundreds of articles and books and blog posts that address this topic, we believe they boil down to just a few key leadership behaviors in the end:

Honest about what?  Leaders aren’t scrupulously examined to be sure every statement is fact-checked.  But honesty is most valued in certain situations and on certain topics:

  • How I’m doing in my job
  • How the company is doing
  • What mistakes were made (admitting them) and what is being done to correct them
  • What the limits are on what can be shared – what is known/not known; what’s decided/not decided; what is open to sharing/what is not

Honest in what way?  The key things people want in ‘honest communication’ are:

  • No fluff – make it clear and direct
  • No sugar-coating – make it balanced and accurate
  • No dissembling – not half the information, but all it’s possible to give; no trying to hide unpleasant facts

Transparency – how to act as a leader?  In addition to the behaviors related to honesty outlined above, leaders demonstrate transparency most clearly by consistently exhibiting these behaviors:

  • Push the envelope on accessibility/availability. An open door policy is not enough.  Don’t force people to seek you out.  Make the rounds.  Ask what they need to know.  Ask them for feedback, but not with vague, general questions.  Ask specific questions, such as “When we communicated with you about xyz in the meeting last week, what did we miss?”
  • Demonstrate equal access to power. Make sure your processes for communicating are open, so that people know everyone gets the same messages, and everyone knows they have the same opportunities to provide input where it is appropriate.  Online message boards are an example of democratized processes for transparency.  Be on the lookout for trust-busters like double standards and favoritism, either in yourself, or among others on your team, and correct issues.
  • Reward honesty. Even when it’s bad news, don’t kill the messengers.  Publicly thank those who bring forward productive honest information and feedback.
  • Kill deceit and triangulation. Take immediate, private action with anyone who demonstrates dishonesty, lack of full disclosure, or undercover griping rather than bringing things forward to those affected.  The goal is not punishment, but compliance with group norms that you want to prevail in your workplace.

We hope Dan Schawbel is right.  We’d like to see honesty and transparency become the new leadership norms for the decades ahead.  What will you put on your development list to meet the expectations of this new era?

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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