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The Trouble With Transparency

(July 17, 2023 Newsletter)

I often hear leaders describe how much they care about transparency – they strive to be open and honest with their peers, teams, and partners. But like with so many other values, the devil’s in the details.

  • It comes from a good place. If you strive to be a transparent lead, you may remember the frustration earlier in your career of finding things out too late, of rumors flying and managers not being forthright in answering your questions. You may tell yourself that you can do it differently. (You’re probably right.)

  • But there is nothing more frustrating to an employee than a broken commitment from a person of authority. And when someone says they’ll be transparent but doesn’t go into more detail on when, why, or how, it’s easy to disappoint.

Naming “transparency” as a core value can set unrealistic expectations, if not clarified.

Why transparency matters – and the associated dangers:

  • Information is power. Many executives or managers aim to share that power – when possible. Those last two words are key; it’s not always possible and not all exceptions can be anticipated in advance.

  • It enables collaboration. When folks understand the bigger picture, they can connect dots themselves and take more initiative. The danger here is overloading the team with a distracting or overwhelming amount of information.

  • People can spot what you miss. No matter what your role is, visibility remains an ever-present challenge. But when you use transparency as a crutch for not filtering your messages, you can lose track of the narrative and come across as unclear.

It’s one of the less-fun parts of leadership – wishing you could be more open with your team than you can, in some cases.

What gets in the way of being more transparent?

  • An individual comes to you to share something private.

  • You can’t give more information than you’ve been advised by lawyers.

  • There’s a sensitive process underway and it needs to stay under a tight lid for a limited time.

Simon Sinek summarized it nicely: “Transparency doesn’t mean sharing every detail. Transparency means providing the context for the decisions we make.”

So what can you do?

  • Explain what you mean by transparency and give concrete examples of what it looks like (and doesn’t look like).

  • Strive, don’t promise. You can’t cover all exceptions, but you can set guiding principles.

  • Invite your team to point out and ask, respectfully, when they think you’re not following this core value. If and when that happens, thank them and then you’ll have two options – give them more context or explain why you can’t.

I’d love to hear more about your experience navigating the tricky waters of transparency and privacy. How have you handled situations when you’ve wanted to share more than you could? How have you stuck to other core values to make those decisions?


The Coaching Corner

Ask for permission before giving advice. As a manager, it’s evitable that you’ll want to tell someone what to do. It is part of your job and can help when you act as a guide. The way to do it as a coaching skill is by checking with the person before you jump in with your advice. “Would it be helpful if I share my opinion/perspective?” It can go a long way in reminding the person that you’re partners.



This is Marketing by Seth Godin. I started reading this, or actually listening to it, on audiobook, and am loving it.

Read the new article “Nail Your Presentation — Even When Your Time Is Cut Short” by Deborah Grayson Riegel on sharpening your presentation skills.


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