Almost all organizations (and leaders) claim that they want their employees to be transparent and candid—or some variation on that theme. Some even adopt stated cultural values using those words. It has been my experience, however, that despite an intuitive understanding that such values and behaviors support better communications, teamwork, and decision-making, most organizations don’t actually reward such behavior on a consistent basis. In fact, in both my organizational leadership and consulting roles, I have found that it is actually quite rare for organizations to be healthy enough and safe enough that employees (both staff and management) have the confidence to speak in truly unfiltered ways.
At worst, organizations overtly encourage transparency, but then punish people who challenge conventional wisdom or the status quo. Usually however, the dysfunction is more subtle, in which some kinds of transparency and candor are OK and even rewarded, but the “hidden” culture has taught people to steer clear of voicing opposing opinions about key topics or in contradiction of certain people. As an example, I was recently engaged in a conversation with a university executive team and I asked what it was like working for the CEO. Despite the fact that most of the folks in the room had been together for years (and the fact that they had just mentioned how well they worked as a team) they struggled mightily to say anything other than the typical glowing remarks about their boss. I then pushed further, asking what things the CEO could do better. You could have heard a pin drop until the CEO finally spoke up and said that there were many things she could do better. That reality is actually very typical as most teams are motivated more by politeness than transparency.
This dynamic, though common, is terribly unfortunate because the power of transparency and candor can be truly transformational. In organizations in which senior leadership have the confidence, sense of security, and foresight to allow for healthy conflict, passionate disagreement, and open challenges to the status quo, the quality of problem solving and decision making is remarkably better than in organizations that fear and restrict such behavior. Of course, that also requires a level of confidence and vulnerability that is also fairly uncommon in most chief executives.
A really good and entertaining read on this subject is Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni argues, correctly I believe, that one reason that transparency, candor and healthy conflict engender much more successful outcomes is because those behaviors are markers of teams rather than just groups of employees, managers, etc. In fact, he believes that teamwork is the single greatest competitive advantage any organization can possess.
In contrast, transparency and candor, if they exist at all in unhealthy organizations, are often levers for gaining political advantage rather than higher quality problem solving or decision making. In dysfunctional organizations, and in the absence of true teams, conflict is unhealthy and unproductive, because there is an underlying lack of trust among colleagues. That lack of trust makes healthy conflict impossible and results in people defaulting to politeness because it’s simply safer.
Although rarely the topic of leadership training, one of the greatest leadership challenges any leader can face is moving an organization (and the people in it) from self-interested and dysfunctional to team focused and healthy. In fact, it is so poorly understood and difficult, that it is rarely ever the primary focus of leaders’ efforts—either because leaders don’t realize the significance of organizational dysfunction or they do realize it, but don’t have the “chutzpa” or confidence to tackle the challenge. Leaders are usually focused on operational, financial, or strategic initiatives, which although important, will inevitably be compromised by a dysfunctional culture. The fact is that even the most difficult operational or financial problems are generally easier to deal with than deep cultural change, which is why most leaders avoid the challenge.
It takes effort to sustain any organizational value worth having, but if you really want your leadership to create transformational change, then you must nurture the kinds of values and behaviors that will result in true teamwork and the synergies that come from teamwork, such as trust, risk-taking, transparency, candor, healthy conflict, and deep collaboration. It will not be easy, but it will pay bigger dividends than just about anything else you can do as a leader.
Transparency and candor in organizations are influenced by macro-culture as well. Organizations in the West, for example, tend to be less hierarchical and more democratic (but equally vulnerable to dysfunction!). Those in the Middle East and Asia tend to be more top down and deferential, with Latin culture usually straddling a middle ground, with an appreciation of both teamwork and hierarchy. Having worked in all of those environments, however, I can say with confidence that regardless of macro culture, organizations themselves benefit from greater transparency and candor when such behavior is safe. Of course such conduct is more or less “natural” in different contexts and must be learned in cases where it has not been practiced at all, but the outcomes (better problem solving, decision making, creativity, teamwork, etc.) apply across all cultural contexts.