We have all heard about the virtues of the transparent organization and many of us know that we thrive when we have a sense of what is happening and why.
But I think that most modern leaders (from CEOs to middle managers) don’t have a real appreciation for why transparency is so imperative. That it stems from our biology as a species, which cannot be overridden.
In my consulting work, I see this all the time. Most of the challenges that crop up in the modern workplace are a result of attempting to have people to work against their biology—something that is inherently impossible to do.
When it comes to transparency and communication, this is what leaders and managers must remember: in the absence of information, the human mind will always fill in the worse case scenario. Always.
This is because the human body has a complex survival system that is continually on alert for potential attack. Our bodies were built to help us survive as a species and we were wired thousands of years ago when we lived off the land in small tribes, surrounded by big dangers.
Our chances of survival are much greater if we assume that there is a predator out there—better to be overly sensitive than dead. But in today’s workplaces, this can wreak havoc by fueling the rumor mill and escalating conflict, both real and perceived.
Our brains are built to sort through lots of information and to make meaning out of it. We have a built in “story teller” that takes in information, connects various points, fills in some blanks, and can weave together a coherent story.
I’m sure you can remember a time when you’ve done this. I certainly have. You saw or heard something and pretty soon, you were sure you knew what was going on. As you thought it about it, it became more real, eliciting strong feelings—you might have even visualized future outcomes, with great detail, and got yourself quite worked up.
And if you shared your thoughts with a colleague or two or ten, the story was significantly amplified by shared perception and validation.
I often hear leaders complain that employees are “so negative” and ask me, “why do they always assume the worst?” To which I reply, “Because humans are wired to do so and it’s your job to provide the information they need to know what’s really happening.”
In the absence of a narrative, humans will supply their own, which is why leaders need to be committed to creating transparency.
Think about the typical workplace. You have lots of people having hundreds of interactions each day. And each person’s body is scanning for danger, and making meaning with a slant toward taking things personally. Is it a wonder that things sometimes don’t go well?
Here is how leaders can intentionally counterbalance human wiring and create transparent organizations.
1. Honor human biology.
Asking people to work against their biology is a futile quest. If you are not well versed in this topic, be sure you seek the advice of experts like coaches, talent management professionals, and other thought leaders like Daniel Goleman, Brené Brown, and Carol Dweck.
2. Provide an authentic narrative.
Proactively share what is happening and why. Don’t assume that people know or that they can’t handle challenging news. You are building trust by honoring that they deserve to know.
3. Be accountable for communication.
Unless you have a specific, agreed-upon comm strategy that you know your leaders/managers implement, then drive it yourself. Today’s digital tools make it easy to design a thoughtful plan and timeline for sending messages to your team, no matter where they are.
4. Seek input through two-way communication.
The success of your organization will be enhanced when you seek the opinions and ideas of the employees on the front lines. They often have very valuable information that improve productivity, customer service and employee engagement.
Creating transparent organizations should be a top priority for today’s leaders and managers. And once you establish a transparent culture, you will be able to harness the potential of all your employees who will thrive in a culture based on trust and respect. Because that is what transparency communicates.