Transparency in Communications

By Guy Higgins

As I recently read a Wall Street Journal/Deloitte article on the future of work, Adapting to the Future of Work, I was struck by this comment, “About three in five (59 percent) of corporate leaders say transparency in communications is a critical priority for achieving their organization’s goals.” For me, transparency of communication means open and honest communication.

Now, this was written by someone from either the Wall Street Journal or from Deloitte (or jointly by authors from both organizations). Both are well respected companies that employ solid professionals. Therefore, I will take the authors at their word. That, to me, then raises the question, who are these two out of five corporate leaders who fail to understand that the purpose of communication is (or at least should be) to communicate. That, in turn, would seem to subsume the idea of transparency. If statements from leaders at any level of the organization are not transparent, they must, perforce, be hiding something. If they are hiding something, the most pertinent possible question is, “Why?”

In answering that question, it seems to me that there are a very limited number of possible answers:

  • They don’t understand the concept of communication.
  • They’re trying to “sell” an idea in which they don’t have full faith or which they somehow believe that their people/team will not accept at face value.
  • They have a completely hidden agenda and are trying to “put one over” on their people/team.

In turn, the existence of these limited options raises the question of why it is that a leader is not prepared to be transparent. This, I think, is a question that every leader should ask when they decide to “communicate” with “the troops.” Why am I doing this, and what do I need to say in order to achieve the goal of my communication? The honest answer to those two questions should be something that the leader is prepared to discuss openly.

Let me lay out a short parable. A company CEO decides that the company needs to reduce overhead, and that means cutting several employee-oriented and popular programs. The “stock statement” developed at corporate may be something to the effect that increased competition is forcing the company to cut costs and the efforts that contribute least to the bottom line are X, Y, and Z (the popular employee-oriented programs). This is not a statement that will be perceived as transparent or taken at face value in the absence of some compelling evidence of increased competition and/or growing costs (recall, I did not say that the CEO actually decided that increased competition was forcing cost cutting; that was just the excuse that was used to cut programs). The failure to be transparent (either providing the needed compelling evidence or admitting to whatever reason made the CEO decide to cut costs, many of which would likely be completely valid and acceptable to the workforce) is more likely to undermine morale and reduce productivity than to actually improve the bottom line.

Today’s professional workforce (which includes many “trades”) is far smarter and better educated than in the days of Henry Ford’s wanting a “pair of hand without a brain attached.” A true leader is going to recognize that transparency is an inseparable part of communication and will communicate honestly and transparently. We owe it to our workers.


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