The leadership fundamentals of trust and transparency are probably the most important fundamentals of leadership that stands between ordinary results and extraordinary results.

But what is transparency?

If you Google “leadership transparency”, you find countless articles from reputable sources such as Harvard Business School and Forbes, and professional associations and leadership periodicals like AboutLeaders.com.

Leadership Fundamentals

My definition comprises or requires several other traits, such as integrity, sincerity, authenticity, consistency, humility, and admitting mistakes and never hiding them.

Transparent leaders allow their direct reports to give them feedback and respond as often as possible by making adjustments where needed according to the feedback.

Transparent leaders will change as soon as they know they need to change and not hide the change. In fact, they’ll make sure the team knows and thank them for their feedback.

But mostly, transparent leaders do not use whatever shade of truth that works best at the time, rather they adhere always to only one shade of the truth: the most accurate and complete truth to the best of their knowledge.

Transparent leaders adhere to that one shade of truth consistently with every word and deed – conveying they have no hidden agenda. They are also selfless, putting the team first. Their mantra of transparency permeates their lives in every situation and venue. Transparent leaders are truthful, first and foremost with themselves.

From what I shared so far, which may be only scratching the surface, transparency would seem unattainable. Indeed, if we are truthful with ourselves, we know our flaws and the mistakes we’ve made. But we are only human. And that means much of what I suggested above may run in opposition to the creature within us.

So instead, it may be more effective to discuss how to avoid clouding transparency.

Here are 10 mistakes that lead to breaking the leadership fundamentals of transparency and trust:

1. Protecting the Veil

There is always a sort of “veil” between management and non-management. As the veil thickens, so does opacity. To improve transparency, thin the veil.

I’m not talking about matters of a confidential nature in the management venue that should not be discussed outside of it. Rather, it’s about avoiding a culture of pumping the power differential and offering pleasantries instead of the truth.

One important aspect of keeping the veil thin involves responding to questions with the truth (that you know), “I’ll get back to you” (and do), “I don’t know” (because you don’t), or “I’m not at liberty to discuss” (because it is confidential). Do not be a politician.

Thinning the veil may be more difficult in power-oriented cultures, such as the old-school culture Dr. Whitaker wrote about. In such a culture, you may have to do more buffering between the team culture you are building and the culture around your team.

2. Being Quiet or Hiding

First and foremost, it isn’t enough to just be consistently truthful. Transparent leaders also communicate well and often. They are oft visible throughout the organization, and are approachable and personable.

3. Being Disrespectful

Transparent leaders show respect for everyone, always. Being personable, approachable, and respectful promotes the reciprocation of the same and establishes a trust connection.

Even when counseling or taking disciplinary action, you can be personable, approachable and respectful. Never use negative emotion, a harsh tone, or disrespect to punish.

4. Using Control Tools

Tools of control are simply methods of manipulation and control. Two common tools are control traps and blackmail.

A control trap is any policy that is unclear for the purpose of trapping direct reports into disciplinary counseling or action. For instance, consider a flextime policy with ambiguous limits that the boss decides at their secret discretion when one has violated it.

If the purpose is to set the stage to exhibit power or control, it is a control trap.

When you set policy and have limits, be clear and concise. There should not be guesswork or fear involved.

However, flex policies might not have clear limits. So provide feedback early for training, not disciplinary purposes. And seek to understand their situation. Either get clearer or flex your policy for them.

Blackmail has many faces and implementations. Bosses who use blackmail do so to remind their reports of their position of power over them and to remind them they can make or break them, killing enthusiasm. An example is to do something “extra” for a direct report, only so it can be used later to control them by reminding them how much is done for them already.

Related:  Overcoming Resistance to Corporate Culture Changes

The worst kind is guerrilla blackmail, which is manipulation cloaked by the pretty jungle of politeness and smiles.

 5. Waiting Until Annual Review Time to Give Feedback

One of my pet peeves is a boss waiting until annual review time to give their direct reports feedback. Yet it is so widespread it is almost expected.

Annual review time should merely be a review of what your direct reports already know. You accomplish this with regular one-on-one and ad-hoc sessions while being upfront and honest and not procrastinating.

There should never be any surprises during an annual review. Such is simply lazy leadership.

6. Existing to Boss

Getting back the old school culture Dr. Whitaker wrote about, if you feel like you have to boss around your direct reports, you’ve got it wrong. Convey that you sincerely expect professional conduct and performance out of your reports, and you’ll be surprised how well they meet your expectation and how that frees them to think outside the box, innovate, and raise the bar on themselves.

Above all, avoid thinking you must control your reports. You might have to loosen the reins a little.

7. Being Lazy with Difficult People

Sooner or later, you will encounter direct reports that are difficult, and so your job is to serve them by training and mentoring them. But that also includes ensuring you understand well whatever condition or  difficulty is claimed.

Allowing hearsay to sway you, making decisions based on assumptions, and jumping to conclusions and judgment is lazy leadership. Do not get trapped by embarrassment or shame among your peers or superiors for having to deal with difficult reports.

The potential of what difficult employees can become by being a great and transparent leader is more than worth the effort.

8. Leading with Fear

An even harsher control stratagem is fear. Fear is a mediocre leadership tool at best. But it is employed to motivate more often than you might think. We are creatures that are motivated by trust a hundredfold more than fear, and it lasts longer because it empowers.

Motivation by fear is usually temporary, unless it is habituated (a bad, bad thing for culture). Fear motivates us to avoid danger, the danger of the boss chastising us and ultimately losing our job.

But it can only bring about mediocre results because the brain structures involved with fear and avoiding anger steal focus and energy away from the other areas of the brain responsible for creativity, innovation, learning and passion.

Fear clouds transparency and erodes trust.

9. Doing Differently Than You Say

When you say you will do something, do it. If you are unsure if you can do it, say so. If you find you are unable to do what you said, let those you made the promise know as soon as possible, and apologize.

And it is simply poor leadership to promise what you know you cannot do. If you don’t know, say so, or say you’ll get back to them (and do).

To avoid forgetting, always keep a small notepad in your pocket to jot down notes and action items. Writing it down and following through promotes transparency.

10. Leading by Catchphrase

One of the biggest hang-ups of managers is overusing catchphrases and clichés by forcing those square pegs into round holes.

In other words, one size doesn’t fit all. The life of a leader can be chaotic because it involves other human beings with their own unique potpourri of circumstances, strengths and weaknesses, personalities, preferences, and agendas. You must learn how to roll with the punches. And if you can, even see those punches as dance moves instead.

To merge diversity into collective strength, you must be guided by values and principles, but driven by the context.

In essence, transparency is more than being consistent and truthful. What people see is what they get.

It is also holding a theory Y or theory Z mindset while focusing on being an integral and interdependent member of the team rather than polishing the throne of power.

How Do You Build Transparency and Trust?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.