Bill Gates famously said, “How you gather and manage information will determine whether you win or lose.” He was right. Periods of rapid change demand rapid, intelligent decision-making. That is only possible if an organization can gather and share all pertinent information. The easiest way to do that is to make information-sharing uninhibited, which means practicing radical transparency, one of the most important aspects of frontline leadership.

Radical transparency will help you build trust within your organization, but only if it is truly a two-way street. This makes intuitive sense: you can’t build trust in any one direction if the other party doesn’t reciprocate.

In the normal course of operations at most businesses, there are countless opportunities to practice radical transparency by soliciting feedback from employees. Meetings present rich opportunities for this. If you, as a leader, start a meeting by honestly sharing where you are, where you want to go and what the company’s current struggles are, that’s a great start. Then you can and should open up the floor to employees. Ask them what they’ve noticed that week, and encourage them to share any issues they’ve found or potential solutions or innovations.

Of course, there is a profound difference between hearing what somebody says and actually listening to them and understanding their words in the context of your 
business and the challenges or opportunities you face. It’s an inability to complete this last step that often prevents many well-meaning managers from practicing radical transparency. Effective communication is like a circle. After someone shares an idea with you, first check to make sure that you understood what they said, and encourage everyone else to do the same. Once you’ve confirmed that you understand, you can respond—and the cycle repeats.

As you gain insights from your team, you can start to recognize trends in how employees are engaging, collaborating, solving problems and prioritizing their work. In other words, you can get a sense of how your culture is evolving. This gives you a chance to see if the elements of trust, open discussion, active engagement, shared responsibility and collective efforts are working to support your company’s goals and objectives. Engagement starts with listening and giving people a voice. Everything else flows from there.

1. Follow Through to Build Trust

If your goal is to build trust within your organization, then you must extend your engagement with your employees’ ideas beyond the meeting. For example, if, in a meeting, you solicit ideas or ask about potential problems, and an employee raises their hand and says, “A lot of our customers are saying that their shipments are coming in late, even when we send them out on time. Are we doing anything to resolve that?”

If you just say, “Great point, thank you,” and never bring it up again, you’ve betrayed that employee’s trust. You might have shown that you heard, but you failed to respond. You must always follow through with your employees when they’ve shared something. If you don’t, it can be even worse for your company than if you never solicited feedback in the first place.

2. Establish Clear Expectations

Radical transparency requires that you strive for clarity in all of your communications. Some of the most important communications revolve around expectations. If you have two teams, and one is waiting for work from the other before they can do their job, and the two teams don’t have the same expectation about when and how the work will be done, there will almost always be conflict. These are the types of situations that cause major project delays, hurt feelings, a general animosity between teams, and it can bury your company.

3. Practice Radical Transparency with Customers

The final part of radical transparency extends beyond your organization and incorporates your customers and community members. But radical transparency with your customers and community stakeholders, just like radical transparency within your organization, needs to be a two-way street. You need to enter into true, trusting partnership with your customers, and you have to encourage their feedback and let it guide your own activities, as long as those activities are aligned with your purpose

Compassion for Self Enables Transparency

While we all can and should strive to do and be the best that we can in any given circumstance, it’s important to recognize that you’re enough—even before you achieve a goal and even if you don’t succeed.

A failure to take this compassionate approach with yourself will not only make you miserable, it will reduce your effectiveness as a leader and prevent you from exhibiting one of the most important traits of radical transparency: empathy. Because radical transparency requires two-way communication, you need to be able to understand the feelings and thoughts that drive what employees say and how they act.

If you believe that you have to prove you’re enough by reaching a very high standard, that means that you believe the same about everyone around you. And it’s impossible to empathize with your employees if you can’t demonstrate compassion with yourself. Some of the most ambitious people might scoff at this. We have an image of a leader, very much popularized in the “greed-is-good” 1980s and ’90s, as someone who is successful because they lack empathy. They’re cutthroat. They can outperform their competitors, rise to the top of the firm, and seize the market. Empathy, in that model, is a sign of weakness.

None of this is true. Excellence and empathy can coexist, and if you want your organization to rely on frontline leadership and be truly sustainable and healthy, then excellence and empathy must coexist. Recognize that you will trip, and so will everyone else. This is natural. What’s most important is for you to help your employees get back up and continue to grow—and you can only do that with empathy.

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