Optimal transparency

transparent water drops“I’d always rather err on the side of openness. But there’s a difference between optimum and maximum openness, and fixing that boundary is a judgment call. The art of leadership is knowing how much information you’re going to pass on — to keep people motivated and to be as honest, as upfront, as you can. But, boy, there really are limits to that.” —Warren Bennis

Last Friday while watching the evening news, I saw our former governor Arne Carlson on TV. He was calling for the ouster of the University of Minnesota’s President Kaler, saying that he perpetuated a cover up of serious ethical issues in the handling of a mentally ill drug trial patient a decade ago. While Kaler was not leading the University at the time of the incident, Carlson asserts that Kaler did nothing to bring light to the situation once he assumed leadership of the institution and instead was complicit in the cover up.

Likewise, the MnSCU administration was hit hard in the news over last year from faculty unions and others who criticized Chancellor Rosenstone for signing a $2 million dollar contract with an external consultant to begin a change initiative, without disclosing the decision to the full Board or MnSCU’s employees.

Stories like these pop up in all our organizations. Employees and stakeholders have higher expectations of transparency in leadership now more than ever. They expect leadership to be open, authentic, and to tell the truth in a way that can be verified. Any hint of hidden agendas or obfuscation reduces trust in leadership.

At the same time, leaders have to balance transparency with issues of confidentiality. I’m sure that neither leader I mentioned above intended to hide information from employees or the public. The dilemma lies in the judgment call that Warren Bennis refers to in his quote above. Where is that boundary between maximum and optimum openness?

As Steven M.R. Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust, there must be a responsible balance in transparency. While he advocates erring on the side of disclosure and not hiding information, he also says, “Good, common sense would tell you that you don’t talk about confidential matters, private conversations, or other things you don’t have a right to talk about.”

Here are a couple questions Covey suggests you might consider in creating more transparency:

  1. Ask yourself,  Am I withholding information that should be shared? If so, ask yourself why.
  2. Ask yourself, In my work with various stakeholders, what difference would it make if I were more transparent? Then look for ways to appropriately increase transparency.

Leaders can also engender great trust when they create open lines of communication with their employees and stakeholders. This is especially important when something unexpected happens. During times of crisis or the unexpected, leaders need to consider how much can and needs to be disclosed. Or if legal risks or confidentiality prevent details from being disclosed, consider what can be communicated.

How do you create optimal transparency in your role?

Anita Rios


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