October 16, 2014
Thu 10, 2014

Leaders’ talk of transparency undermines trust: What they can do about it


Make sure you have the stomach for transparency before you commit. Leaders who decide to take on transparency put a stake in the ground telling the world they and their organization can be held to this tightly defined measure. Be careful! Too many reputations have been seriously damaged by not following through.

Transparency is a test of true leadership

A few weeks ago FIFA announced the investigative report into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would remain secret only for viewing by members of its executive committee. It’s hard not to trip over the irony of an international ethics probe where the results aren’t publicly shared.

Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson recently poked fun at the many Alberta governments that have rolled out the words transparency and accountability. As he shows us, it’s hard to find when one government ends and the other begins, their words all blend together.

So here’s my plea. No more grand announcements that need transparency to prop up the message. Let actions do the talking. Done well, transparency is powerful, but it’s also difficult. And therein lies the challenge. Transparency isn’t easy. If it was, corporations would line up to be transparent every day and all the talk would end.

Act for transparency

For decades the culture of health systems everywhere was to dismiss mistakes that affected patients. But thank goodness times have changed.

I have worked with physicians and hospitals offering strategic communications counsel during such situations. Compassion guides conversations between physicians and patients and/or family members. And sometimes there is an understanding, a forgiveness for the human mistakes we all make.

No one brings up transparency. Everyone recognizes it’s the right thing to do despite the real potential for lawsuits and loss of reputation. Since then, research shows physicians who immediately and fully disclose often pay out less money for damages and sometimes receive no lawsuit.

In the 14 years I worked for, at that time, one of the world’s top two chemical companies, I was accountable for the communications of the Canadian operations. In my time there, the senior leadership group took on a more open and welcoming approach to all incidents regardless if they affected the community. This was a big step and sometimes a hard step to take given that most of us have no contact or knowledge of what goes on within large industrial complexes.

Recognizing that this level of transparency had the potential to increase people’s concerns, the initiative was done in the context of a larger strategy. Tours of plants sites were organized, a community advisory panel put in place and meetings held with different community groups as well as environmental organizations, not necessarily on side with our industry.

The overall initiative worked both ways; residents and other interested publics got a first-hand look at our facilities, but just as important, senior management received first-hand contact with people outside of the plant gates and a better appreciation for their perspectives.

Make transparency part of your leadership

Transparency has become the “IT” word of leaders everywhere and for good reason. The new normal means nothing stays the same. There’s always the next difficult announcement to make and major changes just around the corner that will affect many.

The rewards for being transparent seldom translate into monetary gain at least not in the short term. The results are usually richer in a trust that cannot easily be broken. From this reputations are made and doors open for leaders and organizations that otherwise would be slammed shut.

Authenticity and trust: Next week I’ll discuss how trust grows when leaders are authentic.