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Transparency at Work: Benefits of Open Communication

July 25, 2011

When organizations undergo rapid change, it can be tempting to hide the facts instead of letting everyone in on what is happening. Building a transparent knowledge culture can, however, work for you rather than against you. In a competitive business environment, companies that want to stay afloat in the innovation game need to get the level of cross-departmental communication right. Why? Because understanding the “why” enables people to engage constructively with their work. Consider the following scenario.

You remember when you were a child – when you’d ask “why do I have to do XYZ”? Do you remember the disappointment and frustration when all you got for an answer was “because I say so”? Thankfully, we are now old enough to think rationally about the world. We know that “because I say so” is not a worthy explanation, and that there have to be reasons behind the things we must do. Now think about how much time you spend at work each week. Chances are you spend so much time there that it is practically part of your identity. Whether you love it or hate it, you must go, and you must fulfil the responsibilities you’re contracted to do. Because most of us are attached to the work we do, we want to know that what we are doing is actually contributing to something real. People do not want to find that what they did needs to change yet again – with no explanation given.

Unfortunately, a lot of the things we encounter on a daily basis don’t have reasons written all over them. This makes us naturally come up with our own explanations when we are not satisfied with what we hear. These can be negative, positive, or just neutral, depending on what we feel in the given situation. If you hate your boss, you might think he told you to finish that extra pile of paperwork because he doesn’t care about you. If he, however, told you that he is really struggling with some new responsibility, you might start to see the situation for what it really is. That is – he is a person with limitations, just like you. When you involve staff in why they need to adapt to something new, you can reap instant benefits:

  • It gives staff a clearer sense of why they do what they do. When they can connect to the meaning behind their actions, it will make them more motivated to do their work.
  • It signals that you trust and acknowledge them.
  • You avoid the possibility that staff make incorrect (possibly negative) assumptions about why they must do certain things.
  • You build closer and more open relations between you and your colleagues. When problems occur outside of your awareness, your colleagues are then more likely to want to communicate them to you.

Now if your boss had told you explicitly why he recently had to delegate certain tasks to you, you might even be able to suggest some ideas based on what you’ve experienced. From a superior’s viewpoint, such suggestions may not seem as qualified as those of, say, experienced consultants. Yet this doesn’t take away the fact that you get to hear thoughts from the people who live with the consequences of your decisions on a daily basis. Rarely can a single person have enough insight to know what is best for a whole organization. At the same time, this lack of holistic insight brings with it the danger that irreparable issues can occur at any corner of the company. It is in your best interest to constructively bridge the voices across departments. In essence, transparent communication can provide:

  • An opportunity for people to ask questions that can e.g. refine the solution to a problem.
  • An opportunity for people to suggest solutions in addition to those of the decision-makers.
  • A broader contribution of ideas. The best ideas can come from anywhere. Accessibility of information gives staff the opportunity to come up with informed suggestions.

While open communication can foster increased employee engagement and a valuable source of idea contribution, it can have its downsides too. We will have a look at these in another post, but until then – how has transparency (or lack thereof) affected you at work? What do you think is the right balance?

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