Principles of good transparency
3 min read

Principles of good transparency

Good transparency answers questions before they come up, brings people along, and encourages consistent and principled decision-making across the organization. Bad transparency distracts people, invites the wrong questions, treats information as currency, embraces gossip as truth, and results in politicking.

Transparency norms are primarily driven by company leaders, who not only set the norms but also act as the master curators of what information is shared with and spotlighted for the rest of the company.

The goal is to create a consistent feeling of stability, honesty, care. And remember, what you say is as important as how you say it.

When deciding what to share, and how to share about it, remember:

  • There’s a difference between honesty and transparency: It’s possible to be honest without being transparent. One example might be a sensitive employee departure; the company should probably be honest about the departure occurring, but not transparent about the details of the departure. The company may even want to go a step further and explain why they will not be transparent about the details (ex- legal ramifications, preserve the reputation of all employees even after they have left the company, etc.).
  • Read access <> write access: Access to information does *not* mean permission to contribute to or edit the information. When you share information, you can also clarify your expectations for how your audience interacts with it. Just because someone knows about an upcoming decision or a decision that’s been made does not mean that they can provide input into the decision.
  • Input <> Feedback: Decisions or news can be open for feedback but not open for input. For example, the company might tell their teams about the newly established process for doing performance reviews. Even though the process for this upcoming cycle is not open for changes right now, you may want to ask your team for feedback once this cycle is over to inform future decisions about the performance review process. (see: Commit to evaluating decisions bullet).
  • Leaders support all company decisions with gusto: When something is ready for the company audience, it must be publicly supported by every leader. The rumor mill feeds off controversy and tension. If something appears uncontroversial, it will be treated as such in the ensuring conversation about it. Once a direction is set, news is announced, or a decision is made, the expectation is that *everyone* is onboard. No subversions allowed, especially by company leaders.
  • Note: This does not mean no disagreements (disagreements are a very healthy aspect of decision-making and company-building). It only means that once a decision is made, everyone commits to executing on it.
  • Share context, explain why: Everyone at the company should be able to reason about/explain to someone else at the company why a big decision was made. “Because x said so,” is not acceptable. Help everyone understand the inputs and principles with which decisions were made.
  • Note: This will not only help get everyone on board with decisions, it will also help everyone become better, globally-oriented, decision-makers in their own work.
  • No surprises: No one knows what they don’t know… until they do. And once they do, you want to be sure the timing is appropriate and messaging is crisp. The company should be the first to let employees know about anything that is going to meaningfully impact their work or the company. One example might be a funding announcement; it’ll put a crack, even if a small one, in the foundation of trust if an employee sees it in the news before they hear about it from inside the company.
  • Leader trust/reader trust: Make sure your readers know how they are expected to use the information you share and remind your teams that this is a positive feedback loop system. If readers are trusted with information and use it to benefit the company, the leader will continue to share and/or share more in the future. If readers are trusted with information and abuse it or use it inapporpriately, the leader will share less in the future. If there is a breach in reader trust, make sure everyone knows.
  • Note: try experimenting with a sensitive announcement like funding or an acquisition. Tell your team as early as you can and remind them of the sensitivity of the information. No leaks? You can do it again. Leak? Tell your team you’re disappointed in the breach, and that it makes it harder to share things in the future.
  • Commit to evaluating decisions: When a big decision is made, show the company that you are committed to evaluating the health of that decision by 1/outlining your evaluation criteria and 2/announcing your timeline and plans for doing that evaluation. For example, if you are making a strategic investment in a new business area, you might want to announce the team that will be working on it and the revenue targets over the next 18 months and what you intend to do if the business area does/does not meet those expectations. When you make that promise to follow-up, be sure to follow-up. It’ll be a boon to building trust.
  • Note: this can also be a good time to tell people when/how to share their feedback