Transparent Leadership (Roger Schwarz)

Originally published by Roger Schwarz on April 7 as GovExec’s Management Matters column.

Are you a transparent leader? Soon after taking office, President Obama issued an executive order calling for agencies to be transparent, participatory and collaborative as a means to strengthen democracy and to make government more efficient and effective. The directive focused on transparency in dealing with the public, but this is neither achievable nor sustainable unless leaders can create it within their organizations.

The definition of “transparency” is to share all relevant information in a way that is timely and valid. Being transparent means sharing the reasoning and intent underlying your statements, questions and actions. For example, when you make a decision, you explain your reasoning by saying something like, “Here’s what led me to make the decision this way.” When you ask someone a question, you follow it by saying something like, “The reason I am asking is because . . .”

When you are transparent, you create better results and relationships because others understand your thinking. People always are trying to find the meaning of actions, especially leaders’ behaviors. When you fail to be transparent, you increase the chance that others will come up with their own theories about your intentions and motives – theories that often will differ from yours. Share your thinking and you influence others to see things from your perspective while reducing people’s need to invent stories about your actions.

Transparency includes sharing your strategy for conversations. When preparing for a conversation or meeting, especially a challenging one, people often develop a strategy for that conversation. For example, when you have to give negative feedback to an employee, you might decide to use the sandwich approach. You begin by offering some positive feedback to put the employee at ease, and then share the negative feedback, and end on a positive note, so he will feel better about you and himself.

Here is a simple three-step test to determine whether you are being fully transparent. First, identify your strategy. Second, imagine telling the other person your strategy. It might sound like this: “Lee, I want to talk with you because I have some feedback for you. I want to be transparent with you about my strategy for our conversation. I’m going to start by giving you some positive feedback because I think it will put you at ease. Then I’ll give you the negative feedback, which is why I really called you in today. I’ll end on a positive note, so that you’ll feel better about yourself and won’t be as angry with me. How will that work for you?”

Then notice your reaction. If you think it would sound absurd to share this strategy, or that sharing it would not work, then you get the point of the test. If you cannot share your strategy without reducing its effectiveness, then you are using a unilaterally controlling strategy, one that must be kept secret to work. The biggest challenge with transparency isn’t learning to share what you are thinking; it’s learning to productively share what you are thinking.

Creating transparent leadership requires changing your mind-set as well as your behavior. It’s easy to be transparent about your strategy when the stakes are low. But how transparent are you when the stakes are high, views differ greatly, or you are heavily invested in your solution? The key is whether you are willing to work on changing your thinking, so you can lead your organization to better results and relationships.

Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist, is president of the leadership and organization development consulting firm Roger Schwarz & Associates and author of The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers and Coaches (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

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