Transparent culture building: why and how

Why team transparency matters and how to get it

Near the middle of Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants, tucked away in a chapter on customer service, is a story about a company reaping the rewards of accidental team transparency. After a records storage firm invested in intensive customer service training for all full-time staff regardless of job description, a funny thing happened:

"Relationships between departments improved as people began to understand better what role each of them played, what challenges their co-workers faced, and how important it was that they all work together. In the process, they started providing more feedback to one another. When customers called in with praise, the telephone representative made sure that the warehouse workers heard about it. When there were complaints or special requests, employees were able to coordinate among themselves to do what had to be done."

Within six months, the company received more positive feedback than in the previous fourteen years combined. And while that’s impressive, it’s not that surprising. Transparent work environments present fewer internal hurdles for team members to navigate and, at the same time, bolster access to support, tools, and information, all of which paves the way for teams to consistently deliver their best.

5 ways transparent teams excel:

Anecdotes aside, creating a sustainable culture of workplace transparency involves some risk and cost. Let's enumerate some of the returns we can expect from this investment.

1. Efficiency

How much time do siloed teams waste simply because they lack access to information that nobody realized needed to be shared? Answer: a lot.

36% of a typical knowledge worker's day is spent looking for and consolidating information spread across a variety of systems. These workers can find the information required to do their jobs only 56% of the time.

Transparent teams, on the other hand, don’t effort in the dark. They waste less time searching for what they need which leaves more time for leveraging the data they have easy access to.

2. Personal Investment

Team members that have a clear view of project goals, status changes, and the efforts of their teammates aren’t able to stay blissfully ignorant of the impact their work has on others. They know when they’re blocking a coworker or stalling a project and, partly because everybody else knows it too, they have a personal stake in doing something about it.

3. Empowerment

When problems arise, transparent teams are better equipped to respond quickly and collaboratively without getting bogged down in hierarchical jockeying and blame-shifting.

4. Motivation

Like an open kitchen in a popular restaurant, transparency keeps us on our toes and delivering our best because we both See and Are Seen:

  • We’re not shielded from problems and unmet needs, waiting around for someone to tell us what to do next; we can easily spot for ourselves what requires attention.

  • We’re not shielded from accountability or appreciation either. Our work isn’t hidden away or offered anonymously. Instead we have daily opportunities to earn our teammates’ respect just by showing up and giving it our all.

5. Empathy

When team members are aware of colleague’s efforts and challenges, they’re better positioned to care and, where possible, lend a hand.

If you decide to begin building a transparent workplace, here are some strategies to consider.

4 strategies for building a transparent culture:

At its root, transparency is a cultural choice. So we've focused on culture here because while tools and isolated practices have their place, transparency is a stone in the foundation of your organization's culture. Recognize that your organization's opacity built up over time, and it will take more of the same to erode it. No one says, "Let's make silos in this organization," or "Let's make admitting error and asking for help as toxic as possible.” Instead the walls came up little by little, largely as unanticipated side-effects to policies and decisions that otherwise seemed appropriate. You won't undo this in a day. Go slow.

1. Lose the cutthroat politics.

As a litmus test, ask yourself, “Does my team openly admit to errors or are mistakes covered up, denied, and, when denial is no longer possible, rationalized?” If owning errors is a rarity, you’ve got a culture problem that makes transparency unsafe. To fix that, we recommend:

  • Start by admitting your own shortcomings and asking for help with them. Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor, is a helpful read in this area. The Radical Candor website also features a blog, quick tips, a podcast, and an advice column, so there’s plenty of material there to get started with right away.

  • Audit your hiring, firing, and promoting decisions. Dr. Cameron Sepah, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, writes that, “... employees practice the behaviors that are valued, not the values you believe,” insisting that, “The moment that leaders start weighing values-congruent against values-incongruent behavior, as if they balance out, is the moment when they have compromised their values.” If you want a transparent culture, don’t hire or promote people who exhibit behavior that makes transparency unsafe.

  • Pay attention to companies that have achieved cultural recovery. Here’s a quick read from Cumulus Media’s CEO, Mary Berner, and a longer, more in-depth article from the Harvard Business Review.

2. Pair responsibility with authority.

There’s a difference between transparency and a total lack of boundaries. Where the former is empowering, the latter can be chaos. Regardless of where they are on the organizational chart, people with a responsibility—any responsibility—need:

  1. The requisite paired authority, and

  2. To be seen as the go-to for that area

The result is a level of ownership that can’t be achieved in silos or in boundaryless environments where our every move is watched, scrutinized, and micromanaged. You'll know you’re on the right track when you see senior team members acknowledging and submitting to the ownership junior team members have over their areas of responsibility. Let this deference-despite-the-org-chart start with you.

3. Favor open communication channels.

A software development team leader here at Open Door Teams writes that, “It can be tempting to send someone an individual email, or to send a direct message in Slack, but it's almost always better to use open channels that the whole team can see (and search) and to @mention the person you're addressing. If I'm seeing some unexpected behavior, or trying to figure out a failing test or wondering why a service is down, multiple team members may have insight into the problem or may be affected by it as well.”

Simply asking questions in a transparent manner leads to transparent delivery of answers, and a virtuous circle begins to turn.

4. Adopt collaborative tools.

As mentioned in #3 above, the tools you use set the tone and trajectory of your transparency. Choose tools that are transparent by default and many barriers will be removed. Here are some collaborative tools we've found useful at Open Door Teams.

  • Pivotal Tracker - Real-time project management that gives all team members easy access to status updates, priority changes, and each collaborator’s contribution to project goals.

  • G Suite - Cloud-based software that allows us to work together asynchronously and from anywhere.

  • Slack - Serving as our virtual office, this real-time messaging and file-sharing service is the glue that connects our fully distributed teams.

  • Figma - Collaborative UX design that gives all who wish it a view and a voice into the design process.

  • Wunderlist - We make lists, set due dates, assign tasks, comment, and share files with this cloud-based task management software.

  • Zendesk - Technical support is far more efficient when the entire team has up-to-the-minute views of open tickets and ongoing communications with users.

  • Daycast - The desktop application our developers built so that we could plan our days and track our time in full view of each other.

This is our tool set. There are many others. And because most have free trial periods, it’s easy to try them before making organization-wide commitments. Remember: Slow and steady wins the culture-change race.

Be the change.

Managers interested in helping their teams become more transparent can start by becoming more transparent themselves. Quick takeaways you can start implementing today:

  1. Instead of asking, “Should I share this information?” make sharing the default and ask, “Should I limit the sharing of this information?”

  2. Before closing the meeting room door, consider… does it really need to be closed?

  3. When sending an email, ask yourself, “Is email really the best channel? If it is, have I included everyone I should here?”

All culture changes take time, and building transparency is no exception. For continued success, create meaning, not mandates. Your team will follow your lead when you demonstrate with action the value of transparency.


Photo by Alex Holyoake