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Make communications an open book

I’ve been thinking about transparency a lot recently.

In communications, especially in difficult situations, transparency reigns supreme. The thing about being clear, open and honest is that if you’re not, people will fill in the gaps for themselves. I’d rather people had the truth, no matter how unpalatable, than a confused, imagination-fuelled narrative based on hearsay that serves nobody.

A lack of information in itself is a stressor for people. They will know that things are hard right now. They will know that tough decisions may need to be made and they are constantly told by the press that we are heading into a recession, so they will already be worrying.

“False and unfounded rumours can spread as fast as a virus, and companies need to earn the trust of their employees through frequent and accurate communications.”
[Harvard Business Review]

Transparency is being touted in everything to do with our current situation and it is an empowering tool. It removes the infantilisation of people who work in our businesses and assumes, rightly, that they should have the information they need to make decisions and to undertake their job with clear vision.

But can you be too transparent? This is the major concern that leaders seem to have about the whole transparency discussion. For me, the only reasons to need to limit honesty would be uncertainty (“we’re not sure what we’re doing”) or because the reality is tough (“we won’t tell anyone yet, we’ll tell them when we’re ready”). Both of these aren’t good enough reasons. Tell people you are working through things. Tell people the business is facing some hard decisions.

I remember once when I was in a corporate role (and I am sure many of my ex-colleagues will remember this too), I was working on the pay budget for salary increases and we had put together a business case to our Head Office explaining why we needed 3%. There was much deliberating and, as our numbers weren’t great, they eventually confirmed that we could have 1.5%. Our window to act and implement the pay review had been squeezed by the prevarication and, in order to get action quickly, I immediately forwarded the email to my colleagues on the board to say “Here’s what we have got guys. We will need to limit pay awards to hot spot roles X, Y and Z. Other than that, we should focus on exceptional performers and that’s as much as the current budget will stretch to”. Or something like that. I was being very open with the board with the intention of getting them to act whilst I went into an all-day meeting. Except I didn’t send it to the board. I accidentally sent the email to all 3,000 staff in my division.

I can honestly say I’ve had better days at work. There were tears, emergency phone calls and a genuine belief I would be sacked. But here’s the thing. When I spoke to our Works Council to explain it was a mistake and that I would retract it and send out a follow up, they said “No!”. They told me that the feedback they had had from staff was positive. They said it was the first honest communication they’d received about pay in ages and they were happy with the absence of corporate bullshit. The email had said it as it was. The staff knew where they stood and, whilst they may not have been happy about the outcome, they understood what was going to happen to them and why.

It taught me a lesson about transparency. Why do we feel that we need to wrap our colleagues in cotton wool? Is it because we don’t think they will understand what we are saying? Is it because we think they will be scared? Are we worried about bringing things out in the open too early? Do we worry transparency might cause confrontation?

During this pandemic I’ve been working with the most amazing set of clients who are all working hard to bring their employees back into the workplace safely - and we always push for transparency in how we communicate with people. We take time to listen to the unique situation each person is in and work with them to make them feel confident for a safe return to work. We’ve employed transparency throughout the pandemic, from the early days when we didn’t know what to expect right through to the current phase as we prepare for a careful return to work.

Our top tips for transparency at work:

· Open a dialogue with your people – make it open, honest and 2-way

· Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. If you don’t know, say you don’t know

· Think about your tone – make sure it reflects your business brand but don’t be afraid of informality

· Be understanding and empathetic, staying open to ideas and feedback

A lack of transparency acts as a barrier within your business, it divides those who know and those who don’t. It can also inadvertently smack of dishonesty. For the sake of harmony, respecting people’s intelligence and as part of a fantastic, open workplace, we like the idea of transparency being part of the everyday culture so sharing and honest communications become the most natural thing in the world.

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