Transparency: A Key for Your Effectiveness

Roger Schwarz

Transparency has recently become a popular topic in business as organizations seek to build (or rebuild) trust with customers, shareholders, and employees. Whether you are a leader, consultant, facilitator or a team member, being transparent can help you build relationships and create positive results in ways you didn’t think possible.

Transparency is explaining why you do, think or say things. If I say to you, “Can you tell me whether you’ve sent out the sales report I assigned to you? I’m asking because I have some revised figures that I want to give you if it’s not too late,” what I said after the word “because” is being transparent. By simply sharing the reason for my question, I’m providing you with important relevant information that helps us address the subject and builds trust.

By being transparent, I get an opportunity to create shared understanding between us. If I don’t explain myself, you will guess (infer) why I’m asking you about the report. Chris Argyris’ research and our consulting, coaching and facilitation experience tell us that if you’re feeling threatened or put on the spot, your guess will probably include negative inferences about me. You might infer that I’m asking you because I’m concerned you haven’t met my deadline for sending out the report. If you inferred this, you might also incorrectly infer that I don’t trust you. You can see how not being transparent can quickly create mistrust.

So why would you not be transparent?

Sometimes we’re not transparent simply because we believe that the meaning behind our behavior is obvious and therefore needs no explanation. But we overlook that it’s obvious to us only because we have access to our private reasoning! In these situations, it means recognizing that unless you publicly explain your private reasoning, you are taking a risk that others will misinterpret your behavior. This is a relatively easy change to make if you are willing to share what you’re thinking.

But sometimes we’re not transparent because we want to hide what we are thinking, including the strategy we are using to have the conversation.

This usually happens because we are trying to unilaterally control the conversation to achieve our desired outcome and/or trying to minimize the expression of negative feelings. One of my favorite examples of this is the sandwich approach to feedback. Many managers are taught to use the sandwich approach to feedback when they have some negative feedback to give. They start with and end with positive feedback, “sandwiching” the negative feedback in between. The reasoning underlying this strategy is that starting off on a positive note makes the person more comfortable and makes it easier to hear the feedback; ending on a positive note maintains their self-esteem and reduces their potential anger.

We use a simple and powerful thought experiment that helps us figure out if we’re about to use a manipulative strategy. We call this the transparency test: Identify your strategy and imagine yourself explaining your strategy out loud to the person or people you’re working with, and asking their permission to use it. In the feedback example, you would say, “Lee, I called you in here to give you some negative feedback and I want to let you know my strategy for doing this. First, I’m going to give you some positive feedback to make you feel more comfortable and get you ready for the negative feedback, because I think you’re going to get defensive. Then, I’ll give you the negative feedback, which is why I called you in here today. Finally, I’ll give you some more positive feedback so you’ll feel better about yourself and won’t be as angry with me. Will that work for you, Lee?” If you find yourself laughing at the absurdity of what you’re thinking – or if you’re thinking “I could never share that strategy,” you’ve probably identified a unilateral control strategy that keeps you from being transparent. We usually keep our unilateral control strategies private because they only work \when others don’t know what we’re doing or when they agree to play along. The solution here is not simply being transparent; it’s shifting your thinking so you begin using strategies that become more effective when you share them with others.

When we’re transparent we share information that makes us more accountable to others.

Originally published June 2005