How to lead with transparency in times of uncertainty?

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While not a new concept, the importance of transparency in the workplace became more urgent during the pandemic as our daily lives, including our work environment, were turned upside down. Globally, both in the workplace and beyond, uncertainty became the norm rather than the exception in many influential sectors: geopolitical, natural and business. And there are no signs that things will calm down any time soon.

In a volatile environment, organizational transparency becomes more important to your business success. As your employees deal — or try to cope — with constant turmoil and uncertainty, fostering stability toward mental health is paramount. Any reassurance you can offer your teams will go a long way in stabilizing their anxiety levels, at least regarding the workplace, as external factors are most likely beyond your control.

Ask yourself: if your management team is not leading transparently, what is your reaction to the uncertainty? Do you lead with opacity? What does that mean for our employees?

Related: Six Strategies to Navigate Uncertainty

Transparency vs Opacity

Transparency facilitates a more open, less hierarchical approach to management and a culture leaning towards learning and innovation. It assumes that data and information are of value to people. A culture of transparency helps to decentralize information, and with the right information, we have witnessed individuals become leaders.

The more employees align with your company’s overall business goals, the more room there is for inspiration. Transparency creates ownership and alignment, enabling the company to unlock growth. In addition, it encourages individuals to take responsibility for problems and errors, solutions and their departments. It discourages finger pointing. It shows mutual respect between the organization and its employees.

In this environment, employees stay connected to what is happening within the organization and do not have to spend precious time questioning the direction or plans of the company. If a problem develops, the focus remains on solving the problem, rather than falling into an alleged cover-up and becoming part of the ensuing rumor mill.

Organizations led by transparency foster a culture that recognizes that we don’t have all the answers and learn together as the business grows.

Related: Five Actions Leaders Should Take in Times of Uncertainty

On the other hand, opacity presupposes hierarchy. The lack of transparency permeates the organization and creates silos and territorial kingdoms. Opacity facilitates a culture that guards information and knowledge and instructs people on what to do rather than providing opportunities to lead. There is no employee property. There’s the leadership team and everyone else.

Here are some tactics your organization can use to foster a culture of transparency.

Document your vision, strategy and goals. Mention these north stars openly, even share them externally, instead of people guessing or making them up for you. This level of visibility ensures that your go-to-market strategy is aligned with your vision, mission and goals. Share internally how the company is achieving its goals. Measure how the company is performing monthly or quarterly against a transparent plan you have in place. Share OKR (Objectives and Key Results) reporting on how the company is performing. Use this information to foster a culture of learning. At PandaDoc, we understand that some of these OKRs will fail, but we let everyone know it’s okay as long as we learn from our mistakes. Schedule regular meetings for everyone† Implement these meetings at the company and departmental level. Schedule “ask me anything” meetings with leaders so employees can voice their questions or concerns. All PandaDoc hands have a cadence. We publish a calendar of what we are going to discuss; for example a monthly or quarterly business review, an OKR review, show and tell and what is going on in different departments. We also structure the time to talk about things that are happening in the world that affect us. Schedule sprint assessments. Have departments share their performance within a certain time, for example over the past month. Capture these and post them on your company’s website for everyone in the company to see. At PandaDoc, we invite our entire company to participate in our weekly product and technical sprint reviews. Create a culture in which your employees feel safe. Not every employee feels confident enough to ask leadership-related questions during an all-hands meeting. Provide structured ways to encourage the questions. Let your employees know that they can have one of their colleagues ask the question on their behalf. It’s an easy way to let your employees know you’re behind them, and it provides a way for all employees to take their worries away. Pay attention to what other companies are doing. For example, software developer GitHub implements some innovative ways to promote transparency. Two that come to mind: They publicly announce their employee onboarding and offer employees a two-week shadow opportunity for the CEO. Understand that you don’t have to share everything in real time. You may not want to share a new development in real time; some may need a well thought out plan. But you do want to get in front of the rumor mill before your employees get that nagging feeling that something isn’t right. And certainly, before the information is on the internet. Share what’s happening and what the plan is as soon as possible so your employees can decide on their next steps. Sharing this information helps cultivate mutual respect.

When thinking about leading with transparency, it’s critical to note that your business is already transparent, even if you don’t want it to be. There is no point in hiding negative information. It’s gonna come true. And you don’t want the information shared on Twitter until you’ve shared it with your employees. A better business practice is to embrace and lead transparently to promote a more positive work environment for all.

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