How transparent should I be?

How transparent should I be?

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard, 10. October 2012

I understand that leadership requires transparency, but how do I do that? And should I be open about everything?

Here’s a guide to transparency

Step 1: Co-create and publish a list of transparency rules (see below)
Step 2: Be transparent about your transparency
Step 3: Adjust as the culture evolves

Sometimes employees have the feeling, that the management just wrote a number (“the target is 14!”) on the inside of a glass cube, and all the employees can do is stand on the other side and see the number (“14!”). They cannot get an explanation, or a dialogue on how the number was derived. They feel alienated.You as a leader should strive to avoid this distance between management and employee.

What can I do to be transparent?

Transparency is perceived as fake without feedback, involvement, and dialogue. Transparency comes in three levels:

How transparent should I be?
  1. Tell
  2. Tell, and explain the reasoning behind these decisions, figures, and statements.
  3. Tell, explain, and involve in the process, the problem solving, the decisions, and how to get there.

You should strive for level 3 (tell, explain, and involve) as often as possible. However, this is also a contextual judgement.

Why should I be transparent?

A fundamental principle in New Leadership is empowerment and distributed power in the teams. A requirement for that is an open dialogue, based on transparency, collaboration, and involvement.

This will lead to trust, mutual understanding, and alignment of expectations,  which leads to higher engagement, better products, and an holistic care for the customers and the value we create for them.

Should I be totally transparent with everything?


Going to the extreme is not suitable for all situations, leaders, or organizations. Do not be naively transparent.

Also, some things are legally required to be safeguarded; and other things are sensitive to both the organization, the single employees, and to the financials or the core business, like patents, business opportunities, and research knowledge.


How transparent should I be?

Yes, we’ll definitely be transparent about:

  • Purpose; our “why”; what problem we’re solving
  • Strategy and direction
  • KPIs and how to get there
  • Prioritization of projects, deliverables, and activities
  • Decision processes
  • Employee happiness and well-being
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Status, progress, timelines, changes, dependencies, SWOT
  • Financial status and forecasting
  • Contractual obligations (see note1 below)

Note1 on the contractual obligations: It’s great to publish what we’ve agreed with customers, with vendors, and with subcontractors regarding scope, time, cost, quality, legal implications, payment etc. However, some contracts might contain agreements about things like mergers/acquisitions, and take-over of employees. Be careful what you do here.

Maybe we’ll be transparent about (consider this with your peers and your team):

  • Contractual obligations (see note1 above)
  • Salary and bonuses
  • IPOs and mergers/acquisitions
  • Disruptive changes, e.g. relocation, takeovers, new markets, discontinuation of products
  • People performance and successor planning

No, we’ll not be transparent (see note2 below) about:

  • Selected private circumstances/matters
  • Staff issues
  • Plans of budget cuts or firings; but we’ll involve you as soon as we can
  • Matters that need to be announced to the Stock Exchange; but we’ll involve  you as soon as we can.

Note2: When we’re dealing with issues with that kind of huge impact, we have some legal and some organizational obligations. Legally we have to comply to the rules of the government, the regulatory bodies, and the Stock Exchange. Also, HR jurisdiction can play a role here. Organizationally, we do not want to infuse unwanted or untimely fear or nervousness. However – and very important – we’ll inform and involve everybody carefully when the timing is right.

Will it work?

Yes, if you discuss the rules openly, adjust them over time, and base them om trust and understanding.

Step 2: Be transparent about your transparency

Publish the transparency list and guide, and use it actively. Refer to it, when you make decisions on communication and dialogue.

And finally:

Step 3: Adjust as the culture evolves

Over time the list will evolve and change, as trust, openness and transparency is something you and your team must develop and practice together. As the culture evolves in this way, a need for updating the guide will be needed. Most likely the requests for more transparency will rise.

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