Building trust at work: Focused transparency

Rocks and blue sky reflected in still, clear water at Joshua Tree National Park

Transparency, as a management principle, is complicated. In its simplest form, it’s just sharing information with your team. A policy of total transparency would mean that you hold no information back from your team, regardless of how small the detail and regardless of how much potential it has to change over time. It’s related to clarity and to trust, but there are important distinctions between all three.

I think of the difference between transparency and clarity as being essentially a matter of focus. To illustrate what I mean by that, think of a pair of prescription eyeglasses compared to a pair of fashion glasses with no prescription in the lenses. Both are transparent; only the prescription eyeglasses have a goal of increased clarity. Your goal as a manager is to be the right pair of prescription glasses for your team: some individuals will need a stronger prescription (more help focusing within the range of information that you’re being transparent about) and some will need less (just give them the facts, they’ll extrapolate for themselves).

Focused transparency is one of the raw materials needed to build an infrastructure of trust, because it helps a team understand what they’re trusting their manager to do. “I trust you” is a complete sentence, but in a work context, a more complete sentence is “I trust you to [verb].” That can be as general as “I trust you to act from our company’s core values” or as specific as “I trust you to catch any grammatical errors when reviewing my marketing copy,” but it’s always tied to some kind of action.

Building trust on a team requires that a manager is transparent about several categories of information:

What the team’s goals are

The statement you want from your team here is “I trust my manager to keep our focus in the right place.” If the team doesn’t know what its overall goals are, no one on the team can tell whether or not they are doing a good job, nor can they trust the direction that you’re leading them in (because they don’t know what direction that is). It’s the manager’s job to communicate the team’s goals, and to do it clearly and consistently. In a remote environment, having the goals recorded on a document that’s shared, easily accessible, and referenced often can help to bake this into an organization’s process. For example, if you have a shared meeting agenda, keep your high-level goals written at the top of the document and review them, along with any progress that has been made toward them, at the start of each team meeting. It’s also helpful to ensure that the team understands any major obstacles that need to be cleared in order for those goals to be met.

How each individual’s work ties back to the team’s overall goals

An individual who knows how their own work connects to the overall team goals will have an easier time trusting that their manager has a clear vision for their work. They’ll be able to trust that the manager is including them in the overall team strategy, and that the manager sees them as an integral part of the team. You can create this understanding by framing each new assignment with its potential impact on team goals (The Management Center has a great delegation guideline to help you make this framing a habit). Follow that up with regular check-ins in your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, and reinforce it by bringing the team’s attention to high-impact individual accomplishments in a shared online channel or during team meetings.

How the team knows if their goals are being met

Now that the team goals are clear to everyone, being able to see for themselves when an overall team goal is being met is the next step in effective, transparent communication. Quantitative goals can be tracked through easily accessible (though maybe not easily editable!) reports in your team’s database, a well-placed pivot chart in a shared spreadsheet, or regular updates in a shared team channel. While it’s possible to track progress against a qualitative goal with regular team conversations, surveys, and individual check-ins, it’s worthwhile whenever possible to find quantitatively measurable/trackable questions that can act as proxies to indicate you’re reaching that goal (a “key result” in the “objective/key result” or OKR framework) that you can use to report on progress toward that goal over time. For more on OKRs, check out Christina Wodtke’s book Radical Focus.

How an individual’s work is evaluated

We’ve talked about the importance of a consistent feedback framework when you need an employee to change how they’re working; similarly important is a clear set of expectations around how an employee’s work is evaluated. We’ll dig into the value of clear evaluation rubrics in a future post.

When to limit transparency

There are also some forms of transparency that can negatively impact a team’s ability to work together. Just as important as sharing the information above, a manager sometimes needs to build trust on their team by keeping certain kinds of information confidential, only sharing with those need to know in order to do their jobs effectively:

  • Information about interpersonal conflicts
  • Personal or medical information a team member has disclosed because it’s affecting them at work
  • A team member’s status relative to any disciplinary action at work

There are also some areas where opinions and cultural norms vary widely regarding how transparent one should be at work, and whether you choose to be open about these will depend on your situation.

  • Salaries or salary ranges (my personal preference is to be transparent about salary ranges for every role, at a bare minimum)
  • Upcoming potential changes that aren’t confirmed, or not certain yet (in particular, this can negatively impact folks who have a tendency to be anxious about change – which is a lot of people! – without providing them with anything they can use to make a decision)

Although we’re rarely in a position to provide 100% transparency to our team, it’s incumbent upon us as managers to provide context to our teams to help them understand the relationship of their work to the effort of the team as a whole. Understanding that context helps team members understand what they’re trusting their colleagues to do, allowing them to reinforce and maintain that trust when they see the results of everyone’s work.