Beyond the nod: Five steps to create open, transparent communication at work

By Heather Campbell

In 2024, most leaders are all about keeping it real at work, and part of this is creating an environment of open and transparent communication. Being upfront and clear with each other is the secret sauce to making our teams stronger and more nimble. But, let’s be honest, even though everyone nods along to the tune of transparency, it’s not what’s actually happening most of the time.

It’s hard to be open and transparent when communicating ‘upwards’ because it’s hard to ‘speak truth to power.’ After all, some bosses play the blame game or can’t take challenge. And we’ve all seen that one person get put on the spot in a meeting and it was just…awkward. Our research shows that over 50% of senior leaders don’t tell the boss the truth because they’re afraid of the consequences.

And it’s also challenging for leaders to communicate with openness and transparency ‘across the way’ or ‘down the way’ because people might not react well, might not like what they hear, or there might be a leaky ship where your openness is rewarded with information being mis-reported or shared inappropriately.

Remote working and digital communication have only made a tough gig tougher.

With all of the risks, it can seem easier for everyone to keep nodding and smiling instead of saying what’s really on their minds or asking the tough questions that lead to breakthrough in thinking and actions.

Busy guarding our own turf, we end up second-guessing each other, covering our backs and telling half-truths.

For sure, being transparent and open with each other takes guts and it can be risky. But honesty and transparency make it easier to solve problems, resolve conflicts and break down silos.

Here are five steps you can take, as a leader, if you realise that it’s time to take meaningful action so that openness and transparency becomes a reality rather than an elusive dream.

Be respectful

It’s easy to confuse openness and transparency with saying everything that’s on your mind, irrespective of the impact on others around you. Blurting out hard messages, interfering in topics that aren’t your business or speaking ‘your truth’ as if it is ‘the truth’, can all cause immense damage. When you are communicating, whether one-to-one or in groups, remember that others have their perspective, feelings and needs too. The best communicators always show respect, no matter their role, or the role of others.

Be interested

In the 1920s, Dale Carnegie advised us all to listen more. In the 1980s, Steven Covey told us to ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. In the 2020s, these are still wise words. The best way to show we are interested in others is to genuinely listen to what they have to say – this means listening with a mindset of ‘I want to understand.’ Communicating with openness and transparency isn’t simply about what you have to say, it’s about what others have to say too.

Be clear

In most cases, we aren’t open and transparent because there is some level of sensitivity with the message we want to share. We worry about how others will respond to what we have to say, which leads us to be less than open and transparent in the first place. Therefore, it’s easy to fall into the trap of waffling around our message and being so vague that we simply confuse others. Open and transparent messages are best when they are also clear so that the other person understands what you are saying.

Be open-minded

In open and transparent communication, you will hear information and views that challenge your thinking, so you need to be willing to change your mind rather than seeking to prove your point. Listening to understand isn’t enough if you aren’t also willing to allow your thinking and perspective to shift as a result.

Be consistent

There’ll be days when you’re busy or tired, and being respectful, interested, clear and open-minded feel like impossible goals. But, even on these days, you must stick with the good behaviours above. Inconsistent behaviour will be the death-knell for openness and transparency.

Creating an environment of openness and transparency takes time but it will pay dividends in terms of creating a collaborative and motivated team, and it will avoid time and energy being wasted on unhealthy conflict and demoralising backbiting. It is a worthwhile goal.

If you’ve worked in an environment where openness and transparency hasn’t been the norm, people can be mistrustful if you suddenly start to share information that hasn’t been shared before, or give feedback when this hasn’t been done before, or expect people to ask questions in meetings where they have nodded and agreed before. So, be patient. Take time to explain why you want to make the change and how you plan to change what you do. Then get on and do it. If you operate with openness and transparency, you’ll find that others will naturally follow your lead.

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