In the recent years, many companies, from small to large, have been looking for ways to make their workplaces more transparent and open.
One reason for this is that businesses want to empower their employees to experiment, make decisions, and self-direct their efforts. Openness, in this case, facilitates trust and ensures that people have access to the information they need to be successful.
Another reason is the technology revolution, which has enabled easy sharing of information, and also changed the way we think about the issues of access and privacy.
Many companies who’ve embraced the culture of openness are seeing remarkable benefits, including:
- Increased employee engagement and productivity
- Higher levels of autonomy in decision-making without a reduction in the quality of work
- Faster information flow and rate of ideation
- More ethical behaviour, less acting in the “grey”
- Stronger employer brand and even new thought-leadership opportunities
But while some businesses have succeeded in practicing transparency, many stumble and fall in the attempts to do so, and even more are fearful to even try.
And we don’t blame them: Vulnerability is hard.
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. Brené Brown in Daring Greatly
In this article, we explore the three fundamental ideas you need to embrace to foster a culture of openness at your company, and then share 78 ways you can put these ideas into action!
Note, however, that you don’t have to do all the things on the list and definitely not all of them at once. Start with what makes sense to you. Then do a bit more. Then try something you think might not work, just to see what happens.
One step at time and you’ll reach your destination before you know it!
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1. Declare Your Intentions
Maybe you’ve already done this, maybe not. But the first step to entrenching the culture of transparency (or any other value, for that matter) is making a decision that it’s something that matters to your organization and then sharing your intentions with everyone at the company.
Start by sitting down (or standing up; we don’t judge!) with your leadership team and having a long, honest conversation about what “transparency” means to everyone in the room.
Here are some sample questions that might help:
- When you hear the word “transparency,” what comes to mind?
- If we do this, what will we, as a company, get out of it?
- What are your hesitations?
- If we were to model another company in this regard, which one?
- When we look a year ahead from today, why might this initiative have not worked? What will have gone wrong?
- Would could go wrong if we don’t undertake this initiative for a more transparent culture?
- How radical do we want to be? On the scale from “not telling the employees where the office is” to “cc’ing our competitors on every email,” where should we land?
As Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler discuss in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, your goal is to develop a “pool of shared meaning” among the leaders at your organization:
“Pool of Shared Meaning: Each of us enters a conversation with our own opinions, feeling, theories, and experiences about the topic. These make up our personal pool of meaning. When two or more people enter a crucial conversation, we build a pool of shared meaning—the more we add of each person’s meaning, the more information is available to everyone involved and the better the decisions made.”
Once you have agreed on a shared definition, codify it in a single document, written in plain English.
If it feels right, you can add these ideas to the list of your core values, like many companies — from Buffer to Zappos — have done. But don’t force it, if you still feel uncertain about the whole thing. You can always do it later.
Finally (at least for this part), declare your intentions and share the work you’ve already done with all of your employees. An in-person “town hall / all-hands” meeting coupled with an unscripted Q&A session is highly encouraged.
2. Build Trust with Your Employees
As mentioned above, practicing transparency requires a certain degree of vulnerability and courage from everyone involved.
All of this gets easier when your employees trust you and know that the trust is mutual.
Depending on your starting point on this journey to openness, your team might feel sceptical, if not cynical, when you share your intentions with them. That’s ok.
We’ve been conditioned over decades not to trust our employers and to believe that “Management” is not on our side. And often, that was, in fact, the case. So it will take a while to undo that conditioning.
The only thing you as a leader can do is set an example and consistently make a point of trusting that your employees are smart people with good intentions, and if you are open with them, they will be open with you.They will do the right thing with the trust you place in them.
The paradoxical idea that seems common sense and yet is not that common in the workplace is that if you treat your people as smart, thoughtful adults, they will behave a such.
So stop worrying. Start trusting. Amazing things will happen.
3. Tell It Like It Is
This fundamental principle of fostering a culture of openness is so simple, yet so rarely followed:
Tell it like it is.
Don’t over-promise. Don’t hide issues. Don’t tell people that everything is peachy when you know that things are not.
If you’re manufacturing a version of reality that is distorted and untrue, you’re not practicing transparency. You’re doing something else entirely.
And hey, we get it! The idea of not telling the employees about the company’s challenges often comes from the best of intentions, i.e. from wanting to protect them from the anxiety and stress that business leaders often experience.
Here’s what Ben Horowitz, the author of The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers has to say on this issue:
“As the highest-ranking person in the company, I thought that I would be best able to handle bad news. Interestingly, the opposite was actually true: nobody took bad news harder than me. Engineers easily brushed off things that kept me awake all night. After all, I was the founding CEO. I was the one married to the company. If things went horribly wrong, they could walk away, but I could not. As a consequence, the employees handled losses much better than me.
“Even more stupidly, I thought that it was my job and my job only to worry about the company’s problems. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have realized that it didn’t make sense for me to be the only one to worry about, for example, the product not being quite right — because I wasn’t writing the code that would fix it.
“A much better idea would be to give the problem to the people who could not only fix it, but would be personally excited and motivated to do so. Another example: if we lost a big prospect, the whole organization needed to understand why so that we could together fix the things that were broken in our products, marketing, and sales process. If I insisted on keeping the burdens of setbacks to myself, there was no way to jump start that process.”
So just tell it like it is and then trust that your employees will reciprocate your honesty with a commitment to solving the challenges in front of you.
78 More Ways to Foster a Culture of Transparency
Ok, now that we’ve identified the three most important things you can do to make your company more open and transparent, here are 78 more ideas and actions for you to try.
Note that these are listed in no particular order and vary in the degrees of both “radicalness” and “seriousness.” So, caveat emptor and all that ;).
- Get a team communication tool, like Slack or HipChat. These tend to distribute information among employees much more evenly than email.
- Default to having your Slack channels open rather than private.
- Assign a person to be a “Transparency Champion” for a couple of months. Ask them to looks for things that should be open but aren’t, and give them the authority to question the status quo. Rotate these champions to consistently get fresh ideas.
- Share salary ranges right in the job postings. (like Buffer)
- Create company and team performance “scorecards” and make them available on demand.
- Enable employees to answer engagement surveys non-anonymously.
- Share engagement survey results with the entire team, including free form answer. No editing, no redacting of manager names. (like HubSpot)
- Use a formula to calculate people’s compensation packages and stock options. Share the formula.
- Share your private company’s performance data with the public. (again, like Buffer)
- Start an “insider” blog where you talk about what’s going on in your company. (like Unbounce)
- Start and “insider” snapchat account where you show the day-to-day happenings at your company. No editing!
- Invite random employees to executive meeting to take minutes or just sit in.
- Share executive meeting notes with the entire team.
- Record some or all meetings and share the recording (audio & video) (like Bridgewater Capital). (Personally, we think this is crazy, but who are we to judge?)
- Put as many documents into Google Drive (or similar) as you can and share with the team. Set people’s permissions to allow comments and suggestions.
- Host regular all-hands / town hall meetings where you talk about the company’s accomplishments, goals, and challenges.
- Host an AMA (ask me anything) with the CEO.
- Show your financial model and cash flow statements.
- Host a company retreat, or simply hang out with the team more outside of work.
- Have regular 1:1s with your direct reports. Give them time and permission to ask difficult questions; answer them and tell it like it is.
- Give employees timely and frequent constructive feedback. It’s truly surprising how many managers hold back feedback to avoid a difficult conversation with their team members.
- Do a presentation on the company’s long-term vision and plans.
- When interviewing people for jobs, get them to meet the team before you extend an offer. Both parties will appreciate it.
- Have “Our Culture” page on your website where your talk about what it’s like to work at your company. If you get Marketing’s help on this, ask them to chill with the hyperbole.
- When you see something that is happening behind closed doors, ask yourself: “Is there a good reason why we don’t share this?” If the answer is “No,” share it. (FYI, “We’ve always done it this way” is not a good reason.)
- Find a way to tie individual performance to the company’s performance as a whole. When the link isn’t clear, employees have a hard time staying engaged.
- Explain how you see the team growing over the next year and what growth opportunities will be available to employees along the way.
- Implement an open office layout, or at least dedicate certain areas of the office to unobstructed collaboration.
- If you’re building software, open source parts of it.
- If you’re in the business of giving advice, give a lot of it away for free.
- Rethink the way you view information: it’s not a tool to gain power by controlling access to it, but a way to empower everyone to make good decisions by sharing access.
- Give people access to the raw data.
- When an employee leaves or is let go, let others know and explain the reasoning (within reason). Otherwise, expect rumours and speculations to ensue.
- Explain the decision-making process behind each big decision.
- Read The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business.
- If Transparency and Openness is a core value for you, let go of the people who value the opposite.
- Get glass walls for your meeting rooms.
- When having meetings, keep the doors open. People most likely won’t eavesdrop, but open doors are a subtle sign that you’re not trying to hide anything.
- Make every email internally searchable (like Stripe).
- Create cross-functional project teams.
- Institute an exchange program where employees can join a different departments for three months as interns or junior team members.
- Practice defaulting to openness: instead of asking “is there a good reason to share this?” ask, “is there a good reason not to?”
- Get new employees to shadow people on other teams. This helps them understand how the proverbial sausage is made and what’s going on in the company from day one. (like Zappos)
- Write quick documentation for anything worth documenting. Especially that thing you said you were going to document later but didn’t. You know which one!
- Eliminate any and all fine print and hidden fees in dealing with customers.
- Make Transparency one of your quarterly Objectives (under the OKR model).
- If you’re still a small business, have the CEO have coffee or lunch at least once a year with all employees, and with all new team members when they start.
- Enable employees to give 360 feedback non-anonymously.
- Make hiring decisions as a group. (like Google)
- Orchestrate opportunities for different teams to collaborate and mingle, especially the ones that usually don’t get to interact much.
- Make it clear that transparency applies to every single person in the organization, including the CEO.
- Have the CEO host weekly or monthly “office hours.”
- Have the executives host a quarterly “fireside chat” about what’s going on in their departments.
- Invite your customers to hang out at the office. (again, like Zappos)
- In B2B, invite your customers to give a presentation to your team on how what you’re making has impacted their business.
- If Transparency/Openness is something truly important to your company, declare it as one of your core values.
- Publicize everyone’s professional development plans. This enables employees to “study” together. You might also notice more experienced people volunteering to help the rest.
- Make your pricing model easy to grasp and make it available to your customers and prospects.
- When providing feedback to employees, focus on what they did, not who they are. This helps cultivate a “growth mindset” and makes feedback less scary.
- Make your Marketing team’s content editorial calendar publically available.
- Take your 1:1s offsite. Go for coffee. Grab lunch. When we connect as humans, we trust each other more.
- Don’t punish people who speak their mind, unless they’re acting like assholes.
- Have each team do a daily standup / huddle, either in-person or online.
- Don’t take arguments or disagreements “offline.” It’s okay when leadership doesn’t see eye-to-eye, and it’s important to embrace and model healthy conflict resolution.
- Work with employees who are more conflict-averse to help enable them to speak openly, even when it’s uncomfortable.
- Encourage everyday language instead of jargon when communicating with the whole company. It can be isolating if employees don’t understand something like “Our CAC ratio is bad because our EMEA-based mSDRs received fewer MQLs than expected this FQ” and don’t know what it means. (By the way, it means your Marketing team is in trouble .)
- For when you do need to use jargon, create a glossary of commonly used words and acronyms so that employees can easily get acquainted with the language of your organization.
- Host your own “screw-up night” where people are invited to share their biggest screw-ups and what they learned from them.
- When interviewing candidates, ask them to share a failure with you and how they grew from it.
- Review successes and failures after major projects and initiatives and share the top three with the whole company.
- Create an “#ideas” channel in Slack, where anyone in the company can contribute ideas about anything .
- If you’re going through layoffs, create a website page with the list of people affected, their accomplishments, and ways to get in touch. Then share this page with local companies who might want to hire your departing teammates.
- Let your customers and partners (or whoever else) tour your office.
- Compile and share a list of all the software tools you use at your company.
- Go public. (hey, it’s just another way! no pressure!)
- Explain, internally or externally, where each dollar of revenue is going.
- When you don’t know something, say “I don’t know.”
- Have an interesting story to share about your people & culture practices? Publish it on HROS, or Hazel Blog (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Phew! That was a lot.
But did we miss anything? Have you tried some other tactics are your workplace that have worked? Do share in the comments section below.