How to Be Transparent at Work (Without Making People Cry)

open office layout

Extreme openness. This was the original intention of the open-office design. Breaking down walls would also break down barriers — everyone could exchange ideas throughout the day. The organization would realize a hyper-state of transparency where the best ideas would always win. But I bet you have experienced a different reality with this floor plan.

More whispered conversations. More dodging into conference rooms to make a private call. More dreaming of working remotely. More germs floating around. And a lot more headphones.

Creating a transparent workplace takes more than removing cubicle walls — it takes leaders who are willing to be honest and available to their teams.

I have always been an advocate of this kind of real transparency at work. In fact, transparency is a core principle of The Responsive Method, the framework for success that guides everyone at Aha! each day.

People frequently ask me about how we put this principle into action. They want to know how our team of more than 60 can continue to grow rapidly while still being able to communicate quickly and transparently. And the answer is fairly simple.

To have a truly transparent workplace — no matter the setting — you need to continuously share direct feedback.

This means celebrating what is going well and sharing what is not working and on how things can be improved. Leaders need to make this a priority, even when it feels difficult or awkward.

Of course, with great openness comes great risk — hurt feelings and sometimes even tears. If you are not careful, your attempts at transparency could come off as cruel or disrespectful. No one responds well to this kind of feedback. It only erodes relationships, trust, and confidence.

So, how can you be truly transparent without damaging the team? Obviously, you need to start with respect, but what else should you do?

Here is some advice:  

Goal-first
Feedback should be rooted in the team’s goals. Is a team member’s work still on track? Or are they drifting off target? When everyone is clear on the goals and how their work fits into the plan, feedback is not taken so personally. Instead, it is received in the context of trying to be great as a team.

Teach hard
You should use feedback as a teaching opportunity — not just when there is a major problem. Rather, feedback should start immediately when people join the organization. And it should be part of the company’s DNA every day after. So, meet with your team often to discuss their progress and goals. Give them specific feedback to help them get there.

Avoid “fixing”
Have you ever thought, “This will take too long to explain — it will be faster if I just do it myself.” While understandable, this approach will only hurt you and the team in the long run. Instead of being the “fixer,” see how you can help team members build their skills and knowledge. They will be grateful and you will likely see a boost in performance. In fact, one study found that 92 percent of workers agreed that, “negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

Ask back
As you give feedback, you should also ask for it back. So, regularly ask the team how you are doing as a leader. Do they feel confident in your plans? What do they think you should do differently? Do they see you living up to the company’s core values? This encourages people to be more invested in the work because they know it is not one-sided — everyone is committed to improving.

Transparency and kindness can co-exist. And when you have both, everyone can move forward in a meaningful way.

It starts with a foundation of respect. Work hard to build this with your team, and you will find that transparency comes easily. No matter what your office looks like.

How do you deliver feedback without hurting feelings?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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