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Transparency is BS. Ditch the buzzword and align your teams this way

Gtmhub’s Jenny Herald notes that employees feel the disingenuous use of the word. Just about half of employees don’t believe that their employers are open and upfront.

Transparency is BS. Ditch the buzzword and align your teams this way
[Photo: Andy Ryan/Getty Images]

Transparency in the workplace increases employee engagement, builds trust, increases productivity and boosts morale. And it’s critical to today’s more than one billion global knowledge workers. A majority (82%) of them say it’s important that their organizations are transparent, according to Slack research. And employees at large enterprises crave transparency even more than those at smaller organizations (89% vs. 80%). 

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But it’s a ruse. 

“Transparency” has become nothing but a buzzword thrown around in leadership circles. The word’s meaning has been diminished by its indiscriminate—but seemingly essential—use in boardrooms, interviews, and emails.   

And employees feel the disingenuous use of the word. Nearly one in four employees don’t trust their employers, while just about half (48%) don’t believe that their employers are open and upfront with them, according to the American Psychological Association. 

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If leaders aren’t projecting transparency, then what are they projecting? And how can managers lead with the openness and honesty needed to foster an engaged workforce?  

The gap: transparency vs. visibility

A transparent workplace moves beyond the hierarchical companies of the past that thrived on departmental silos and need-to-know, reactive information sharing. Leading with transparency, managers eliminate murky processes and vague expectations that lead to disconnected, ineffective employees. Some cultivate a culture where employees are invested in their own professional outcomes and devoted to the organization’s overall success. This happens when there is a misalignment of incentives. 

But very few organizations have been able to transcend traditional business practices to achieve this kind of authentic transparency. 

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Why? 

Workplace transparency sounds noble. But I challenge that when many leaders say “transparency,” they mean “visibility.” Too often, managers want a unidirectional look into employees’ activities, especially in remote or hybrid work models. Instead of providing accountability on both sides of the managerial fence, leaders want a single pane of glass view.  

A truly transparent approach must go both (actually, all) ways. That means: no one’s goals, targets or outcomes are shrouded in secrecy. As a matter of fact, managers should amplify information, particularly the enterprise’s direction and each employee’s role and responsibilities in advancing it forward. 

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Of course, committing to transparency over visibility requires a high degree of leadership vulnerability. Leaders have to share the good news with the bad, own misguided decisions and force hard conversations. At times, they must be willing to admit failure (in service of modeling the values of reflection and learning). 

I think executives and managers wince at transparency because this level of vulnerability, and the absolute accountability that follows, can feel new and uncomfortable. Perhaps they believe leadership necessitates distance or think that rank dictates access to information.  

Instead of claiming transparency and executing on visibility, I suggest entirely reframing the conversation to something more concrete.  

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The solution: workforce alignment

There’s a reason why high-performing enterprises put a premium on strategic alignment: it’s the vehicle of authentic transparency.  

Aligning a workforce starts with a defined organizational vision and mission and a strategy for how the enterprise will reach those goals. These essential elements provide the framework for every role and responsibility within the enterprise. Indeed, even tasks should track back to the clearly articulated overarching organizational goals.  

This clarity around the organization’s strategic direction provides context into each employees’ whywhy they do what they do each day, why they show up for work and why they should care. Understanding an organization’s strategy and makeup also sheds light on other questions—what different departments are working toward and how individuals support their colleagues.  

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The entire workforce should have insight into the goals of other departments and how each employee supports the other in pursuit of a common organizational goal. Such alignment enables valuable cross-functional collaboration and plain old mutual understanding.  

But before workforces can deliver on strategic alignment, leaders need to communicate the information and make it readily available to every employee. Managerial platforms like OKR software can be an effective digital delivery system. They provide insight into organizational goals, outline how individuals and teams collaborate to execute those goals and set targets to measure success. With an actual picture of what success looks like, employees can work toward goal achievement and better deliver on the organizational strategy. And that creates the employee engagement and investment organizations want and the meaning and impact knowledge workers need.  

Instead of dropping “transparency” or any other corporate buzzwords, leaders should focus on workforce alignment as a less abstract way to engender mutual trust, inspire employee buy-in and build high-performing teams. A culture rooted in transparency is necessary, but workforce alignment is the best way to get there.  

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Jenny Herald is the VP of Product Evangelism of Gtmhub and the host of Dreams with Deadlines, a podcast about strategy execution and results orchestration.


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