Being transparent and authentic comes down to a credibility question

I read a bumper sticker recently about the importance of transparency and authenticity: “Politicians should dress like race car drivers. That way, we’d know who their corporate sponsors are.” Frankly, few people expect politicians to tell the unvarnished truth — Americans would have a collective coronary if they did. But there’s still hope for the business world, largely because the stakes are high enough for them to be more transparent and authentic.

Think you’re fooling people? Think again

Not many years ago, management’s mandate on communication could be summed up something like this: “Sanitize the bad news and glamorize the good news.” There was a time when employees — and even the public — either believed or tolerated “sanitized and glamorized” corporate mumbo-jumbo. Not anymore. Anything that smacks of spinning or sketchy denial is suspect. What’s more, employees and customers alike are more bullish about calling companies on their communication crap these days.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that shady communication is a leading cause of missteps, mistrust and misunderstandings in organizations. Common sense and tons of research all point to the same basic premise: If you can’t be open and honest with customers and employees, you can’t expect to gain their trust.

Here are important business reasons to make transparency and authenticity a top priority:

  • Problems are solved faster.
  • Decisions are made sooner.
  • Work is done quicker.
  • Costs are controlled better.
  • Relationships are more real and productive.
  • Performance levels are higher.
  • Teams are easier to build and sustain.
  • Employees are less skeptical and cynical.

Put yourself to the test

So what does being authentic and transparent look like in practice?

  • Stop sounding like a boardroom brainiac. Talk straight and talk first about the things that matter most to employees and customers.
  • Open the books. Show employees the critical numbers that are relevant to business outcomes, and help them understand how their day-to-day work impacts those numbers.
  • Replace one-way information distribution with dialogue that fosters open and honest communication.
  • Challenge your policies about what information you’re willing to make available to employees, and get as close as possible to what one Baldrige Award winning company decided — “No secrets.”
  • Use the “friends and family test” in communicating with employees. Ask yourself if your spouse, kids, parents, grandparents or your friends and neighbors would understand — and believe — what you’re saying.
  • Kill the jargon, and remember the words of renowned business consultant, Warren Bennis: “The use of buzzwords anesthetizes you to the truth.” If your communication doesn’t sound like the kind of conversation you’d have with someone across the table, it’s probably littered with blah-blah corp-speak.

Ultimately, being transparent and authentic comes down to a question of credibility. Next time you’re deciding how open and honest to be with key stakeholders, ask yourself this question: Would you rather have them think of you as a race car driver or a politician?