How to kill internal politics by defaulting to transparency

Defaulting to transparency kills internal politics and improves trust and communication. Here’s how.

Lack of trust and communication are two of the biggest reasons for low employee engagement and motivation over time. If you look at reviews from employees at companies with high ratings on Glassdoor, you’ll notice a trend.

The best companies:

  • Hire great talent
  • Have great cultures
  • Provide a place where people can do their best work

What do employees need to do their best work? First, they need context. They need to understand how their work will move your company (and ultimately their career) forward and they need to understand why it’s important.

So how can you give your employees context and clarity while increasing trust and improving communication inside your company? One of the best ways is to default to transparency at all levels.

What is transparency and why bother?

Put simply, transparency is being prepared to “open the kimono” to everyone in your company — all the way from senior leaders to individual contributors — during good times and bad.

Transparency means sharing big wins and celebrating new customers. But it can also mean sharing salary details, board presentations and customer feedback, depending on the level of transparency you’re comfortable with.

One of the biggest reasons to adopt a more transparent culture is to remove politics and improve the flow of information inside your company — especially as you grow.

Think about the level of insight most senior managers have at a typical company. They know salaries, forecasts, have access to detailed customer feedback and more. Similarly, think about the lack of insight most individual contributors have at a typical company. They’re lucky to know their team’s goals for the year, let alone the company’s.

What to share and why

One of the pros of defaulting to transparency is avoiding the organizational silos that plague most companies. The marketing team doesn’t talk to the engineering team. Sales reps only spend time with other sales reps. The finance team has no idea what the support team does, etc.

Defaulting to transparency helps you cross pollenate information from one team to another — automatically and regularly. It’s then up to each person to pick-and-choose the information and level of detail they need to do their job effectively.

You can essentially be transparent with two types of information:

  1. Board-level information
  2. Departmental information

Board-level information includes:

  • Salaries (including the CEO and leadership team)
  • Company strategy (new products, new markets, etc)
  • Financials (forecasts, cash in the bank, when/if you’re raising money)
  • Hiring plans (who, when, where, why)

Departmental information includes:

  • Top 5 goals for each department
  • Last month/quarter’s performance against those goals
  • Hiring plans for each department
  • Metrics for each department
  • Employee satisfaction/ratings for each department

Note: If you don’t have employee satisfaction ratings for everyone in your company, we can help.

If you want to be extremely transparent, you could share everything above with everyone in the company. If not, you can pick-and-choose what to share. The main idea is that you pick a level of transparency and stick to it — through good times and bad.

Example: Buffer

Social media platform Buffer is what I’d call an extreme example of transparency. On their BufferOpen blog they share employee salaries, revenue, goals, metrics and absolutely everything else that drives their company.

Internally, everyone can view everyone else’s emails. For example, if their CEO Joel emails one of Buffer’s investors, all employees can read that email.

Their latest “Investor Report” (available here) is on publicly display for employees, customers and anyone else who cares. Every quarter they detail their key metrics, product updates, new hires, and more.

Here’s a screenshot from their latest investor report showing their key metrics:

Sure, Buffer might be an extreme example, but they are well-regarded as having an incredible culture and being able to attract and retain smart people.

Start with baby steps

Defaulting to 100% transparency overnight is a bad idea. Instead, start with baby steps. Choose a few key pieces of information that have typically only been accessible to your board or senior leadership team and commit to sharing them with everyone in the company.

Choose the information that you feel will have the broadest, most positive impact on all employees — those that will solicit the “oooohs” and “ahhhhhhs” from everyone.

A few things to start with:

  • Your board deck — you have to create them anyway, so why not share them with your employees?
  • Your senior leadership off-site agenda and outcomes
  • Your hiring plan for this year (across all departments)

These are just some examples. Depending on the size of your company, you might not even have board decks or off-sites with your leadership team, so choose things that make sense and feel good to you.

The key things to consider is this — would you still feel comfortable (not good, not great — just comfortable) sharing that information with everyone in your company if things weren’t going well? If you would, then start with that.

Sticking to it

When everything is going well it’s easy to share progress with your employees. But what happens when things aren’t going well? What if you miss this quarter’s sales target? A key executive leaves for a competitor? You have a product recall?

Situations like this can test even the best CEOs, but you have to keep your wits about you and realize that defaulting to transparency can sometimes be a double-edged sword. The best advice I can give you is to always frame problems in the context of solutions. Explain what went wrong, why and what’s being done to fix it.

That’s all your employees want. No sugar-coating, no fluff. Just the truth and a good, honest plan to get things back on track.

If you commit to transparency and things do go wrong, you’ll be amazed at not only how much harder everyone will work, but also how new ideas will flourish to help solve problems and get the company through the tough times.

What’s the payoff?

When your employees know that your culture revolves around transparency and see you leading by example every day, they’ll be much more likely to communicate more frequently and more honestly with everyone — their peers, customers and their manager.

The biggest advantage you’ll experience besides the communication benefits isspeed — more will get done in a shorter period of time.

Another advantage is needing fewer people in the decision making process. When everyone has the same deep level of access to information, they naturally need to pull in fewer people to make the same number of decisions.

One of the growth killers you want to avoid at all costs is internal politics, which comes from people hiding or hoarding information. By defaulting to transparency and giving everyone access to the same information, no one can “have the upper hand” and use what they know to their advantage, which is typically how politics develops inside most companies.

Key take-aways:

  • Defaulting to transparency improves trust and internal communication
  • You can decide on the level of transparency you feel is best for your company
  • Transparency removes departmental silos and stops them being created
  • “Company politics” comes from managers hiding or hoarding information
  • Commit to being transparent, especially when things don’t go as planned

This post originally appeared on the PeopleSpark blog. Follow us on Twitter where we share our best advice for founders and CEOs.

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