Transparent Leadership – Can it really be that clear?

The concept of transparent leadership is one that is being adopted by many organizations across the board, yet its core premise is one that has yet to be fully embraced.  At the root of this ideal remains an underlying fear among upper management, executives and CEOs that by accepting such concepts would imply a show of weakness that would trickle down to subordinates and be seen by superiors as a hosh-posh.  In other words, a big mistake.

This certain hesitation is understandable, however it can be overcome by comprehending the values surrounding the transparent leadership buzz.  When people think of the word transparent, they think of ‘see-through’ or opaque, like glass.  Therefore, applying this term to being a leader doesn’t seem to go together and what people do not fully understand they usually reject. 

Leaders have long had the persona of being the head honcho; the secret keeper; the one with all the answers.  But what would happen if the leader began sharing accountability and including his team more?  Would the team gain or lose respect?  Would the company profit by building trust through collaboration?

Surprisingly, the positive correlation between transparent leadership and productivity and loyalty among employees can’t be overstated.  It builds respect, trust, dedication and commitment among the workforce to have a leader who is honest and forthright.  Transparency creates a culture that reinforces personal responsibility and leads to higher employee engagement

Openness and honesty supports trust, whereas lack of communicating creates confusion and suspicion.    Being completely honest and forthright in business can be a tool to gain competitive advantage and to build camaraderie among staff and board members.  From a small clinic with only 12 employees – to a large medical facility with 400+ on staff – the ability to instill trust, dedication, loyalty and gain respect is imperative for successful change and growth of the organization.  Job satisfaction in the U.S. is only 38 – 45%, as of January 2010.  That leaves significant dissatisfaction.

Think like a tree instead of a stone

Even if you totally “get” the concept of transparent leadership, it might seem like a day late and dollar short to apply it to an already disgruntled bunch of workers.  Since many leaders remain stuck in their old habits, it may also seem impossible to implement this new “straightforwardness” to a staff that is used to having it a certain way.  Change is difficult to accept, even when it is change for the better.  Credibility is key here.

As a leader, you cannot be effective unless you are either approachable or dictatorial.  The latter will not last long.  Dictators cause a stir because they repress people of their own values and ideas, which does more harm than good.  Have you ever heard gossip around the water cooler of what an monster the boss is?  Yet, when she walks by, they can still muster a fake smile and “Yes, M’aam” as she barks orders.  It’s that kind of strained relationship that transparent leadership can put an end to.  That is, if the damage between the relationship of the leader and subordinates is not severe.

Transparent leadership is a skill that requires the ability to relate to people and connect with them on an emotional level, which subsequently allows them to share in the vision of the project to reach goals together as a unit, rather than on an individual basis.

That is not to say that individuals who excel should not be recognized.  It is an overall spirit of becoming more like a tree than a stone.  A stone is solid, immoveable, and stoic.  Although it provides support, it does not give life.  It is rigid and cold.  A tree however, is an ever-growing pillar of what can become many branches of life going in many different directions.  A tree needs its branches and leaves, much like the foundation of a company that begins with humble roots and then sprouts into a giant corporation after decades of determination.  Growth is the goal, but in order to give life to the organization, the leader must be able to support the life of its smaller branches and leaves; while holding firm to its roots.

How can transparent leadership be applied?

A transparent leader must engage his team with unconventional methods to change the dynamic of their preexisting atmosphere; creating a new environment that has a combination of fun, respect, accountability and reward of personal achievements. Some of the ways this can be done include:

  1. Communicating better – ideas, decisions and challenges.  Think about requesting a weekly “brainstorming” session to allow employees free expression of their own thoughts and opinions about matters of importance that you would have otherwise tried to solve on your own.
  2. Build relationships at a professional level.  Start caring about the staff without crossing a line of submissive.  For example, you could acknowledge a family photo on an employee’s desk.  Getting to know your staff will help them feel a rapport and increased dedication to you.
  3. Be a real team.  Stop saying “Me” and start saying “We”.
  4. Make sure your behaviors support your words.  If the employees ask for more training, take their needs into consideration.  If they wish there was a microwave in the break room, so be it.  Certain management sacrifices will increase job satisfaction; hence productivity will be of greater importance in return.
  5. Listen and ask more questions.  Too many people in leadership positions only talk, yet never listen.  The ideas of some team members are always worth hearing, so let them speak.  Their thoughts should never be considered a threat; but rather a way to build the very team that you have mentored.
  6. Stop avoiding confrontation.  If negative feedback is necessary to improve an employee’s performance, don’t be afraid of discussing it.  A transparent leader will take the honest approach, by allowing an employee the chance to express why their performance has not met the expectations of the company.  By working together, the employee is more likely to take heed.
  7. We all make mistakes, so admit it when you do.  That is not a sign of weakness; it is an openness to become better and provides a good example for employees to do the same.
  8. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  If you tell employees one thing and do another, over time they will develop distrustfulness.  Trust gives them reassurance and encourages them to keep their own promises to you, too.

The art of transparent leadership is something that must be continually practiced and applied.  Just like any talent, it is one skill that a great leader can master.  Jim Weidner, president of Cullman Regional Medical Center, had some advice on the matter.  “To build trust, first share it.  When determining what to share, ask yourself if the information will build trust, or destroy it?”

“Being a transparent leader allows me to go home at night and not have to worry or be anxious about situations,” explained Jim Weidner.  “When you are open, you no longer have to remember who you told what to. People should not have to wonder about hidden agendas.”

Transparent leadership is primarily about being frank, candid, interested in the needs of the team members, and using behaviors that build trust.  Likewise, the same expectations apply to the team.  This will eliminate rebelliousness, indiscretions, gossip and high turnover.

Beginning with simple changes, such as the weekly brainstorming sessions; staff will learn to develop and warm up to you as a leader.  Rather than being fearful of management, a transparent leader welcomes feedback or potential problems to come to the surface before they actually become a problem in the first place.  Furthermore employees will feel valued embracing each others’ strengths as opposed to a ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality.  When transparent leadership is fully embraced the overall work environment becomes healthy allowing employee performance and business results to soar.

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