How to communicate with targeted, strategic transparency

Oversharing is not a virtue—nor is it always wise. A comms expert shares how to strike a balance between trust-building candor and TMI.

In both leadership and communications, the quality of transparency wears a halo.

We connect it to other positive qualities like authenticity, honesty, integrity, and altruism—and, when used appropriately, it can certainly reinforce all of those important values.

But just as wouldn’t wear an invisible suit or dress to the office, not all transparency is useful or advised. Nor should it be the sole purpose for sharing a revelation. Broadcasting your professional weaknesses or personal peccadillos to your entire staff is certainly transparent, but is it wise?

Clearly, leaders need ground rules when it comes to communicating with transparency. Below are three tips to help leaders make decisions about transparency that reinforce—not reduce—their leadership presence.

1. Productive transparency requires a purpose.

Transparency is only as meaningful as the content you share, so always establish and recognize the purpose behind that revelation. Consider:

  • Why are you sharing it?
  • What organizational or strategic goal does it serve?
  • Is it designed to elevate your team—or just their opinion of you?

I once worked with a pharmaceutical executive who had the opportunity to toast a retiring colleague. After a string of obligatory and generic compliments, the executive told a lengthy story about how, years ago, he held the role himself and failed miserably.

When I asked the executive to share the point of that story, he said his goal was to showcase his transparency and fallibility, and maybe inject some levity. He saw it as an opportunity to convey leadership values important to him.

However, none of those values—fallibility, levity, even transparency—connected with the occasion at hand. He lost sight of the event’s purpose (honoring a beloved employee) and turned the focus on himself in a way that was not required or even related.

If he had asked himself how his story would reinforce the colleague’s contribution and legacy, he probably wouldn’t have gone down that path at all.

Communi

Joel Schwartzberg

2. There is no “I” in “transparency.”

Another client of mine, a television network marketing executive, needed to motivate her team after a disappointing financial quarter. She wanted to say this:

“Here’s what I traditionally do to motivate myself, and I’m going to double down on it to stay inspired.”

In trying to be open and transparent, the executive didn’t understand that she was moving away from what her team most wanted and needed from her: an honest assessment of what went wrong and the steps they would be taking to correct it. Yes, transparency was required, but she applied it in the wrong place: on her instead of the challenge.

Once we recalibrated every point of her communication to match her team’s needs and expectations, her presentation virtually wrote itself, and it had no pointless off-ramps.

3. Most details are dispensable.

An HR executive I once worked with was charged with explaining why the company was cutting back on employee benefits programs, including highly valued financial incentives. In his preparations, what should have been a succinct statement of cause, response and reasoning became a wide-ranging presentation of every process, person, meeting, option and data point involved in making the decision. Everything was in there but the employee lounge sink.

“I feel like they need to know what I know, so I need to be as transparent as possible,” he told me.

One by one, we reviewed each of his micro-points, asking two simple questions of each:

  • Do they need to know this to comprehend the situation?
  • Do they want to know this as a point of true interest?

The answers to those questions enabled us to cut his presentation (and PowerPoint slides) in half. In doing so, he matched his message to his audience’s needs and wants—not to his own fears and presumptions. And as judged by the subsequent Q&A (for which there was now plenty of time), the audience was not confused nor overwhelmed by the data. They were understanding and appreciative of his point.

Yes, transparency can be virtuous, but your truth should matter, not meander. When you approach the concept of leadership transparency with crucial questions of purpose, audience and relevance in mind, you realize that transparency is most effective—and no less noble—when used strategically.

Joel Schwartzberg is a communications executive, public speaking trainer, and author of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter and The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire Your Team. Follow him on Twitter @TheJoelTruth.

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