Is Leadership Transparency Always the Best Policy?

Leadership transparency builds trust if used correctly

Leadership transparency builds trust if used correctly

I had a great exchange of ideas with Terry of the Wise Leaders blog about trust as a renewable resource. During our exchange, Terry shared this intriguing thought about the connection between trust and consistency in the leader-follower relationship:

To build trust, followers look to their leader to be consistent [. . .] followers like to be able to predict the behaviour of their leaders; then they can trust them. Unfortunately this can result in a leader losing their agility. Sometimes a leader needs to lead in a way that surprises their followers and this can reduce the trust they’ve previously built.

We went on to explore how transparency fits into this scenario: couldn’t being “open” about a sudden change in leadership behavior help reduce the unexpectedness of surprises?

Well, yes, said Terry – except that if a leader is always explaining his/her actions, that may lead to a reduction in the leader’s credibility.

Which begs the question – is transparency always the best policy?

We leadership bloggers make a big deal out of how being transparent with your team helps you be an authentic leader. As with most things “leadership”, there is a nuance that is sometimes hard to distinguish. As I explored in my post The TMI of Leadership, there are definitely things you should and should not share with your staff.

Here’s another way to slice the “should I share?” question:

The following scenarios are examples in which you would want to be “open” with your staff about changes in your actions:

  • You are trying out a new behavior – for example listening more closely during staff meetings – “I’ve realized that I haven’t been as attentive as I could be at team meetings, so I’m turning off my cell and am going to listen and take notes”
  • You are correcting a misperception – “I was told that my actions were misinterpreted – here is what I intended when I did that . . .”
  • Your actions represent a 180 degree turn from your typical response – “I know we usually brainstorm these types of things, but I was given 6 hours to fix this or the company will pay an $X penalty”

So when might you want to hold back as a leader? Consider withholding explanations that sound like CYA: “Sorry, but that’s company policy; my hands are tied” is one example.”

Another point to consider: how might your explanations sound like you are trying to justify actions that aren’t standing up to the “light of day”? In other words, are you walking an ethical boundary? Better to say, “You know, that wasn’t my best decision and I’m going to work to make it right” than to try to shoehorn your reasons into something that you think people will “buy”. They won’t buy it and you’ll look like a phony for trying to put a positive spin on it.

When it comes to leadership, there are few good surprises – except perhaps for the surprise team party. When you decide to try something new – let your team in on it. They can help support you and give you feedback on how the change is going. As a leader, when you are transparent about new behaviors you’re “trying on”, you are modeling openness to new things, which may in turn, encourage your team members to step out into uncharted territory for themselves, but you must also be cognizant of the situations when your leadership does not require you to disclose every facet of your position, thoughts, or command post.

Image credit: Microsoft

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