Transparency in the workplace: How honest is too honest
This was originally published as part of our Working Through It Campaign
Leaders at all levels are trying to find the balance between healthy transparency and oversharing.
Whether it’s hard decisions that affect the whole team or simply a personal challenge impacting your day-to-day, these unprecedented circumstances call for a new set of guidelines around how much leaders should share with their teams.
Below we explore the ambiguous boundary between how much should and should not be shared with your team.
Balancing personal vs. professional
Now that we’ve had time to adjust to a new way of working, we find ourselves in various stages of acceptance and affliction. By now, many organizations have undergone both initial shock and reaction, but questions loom large about how long this will last and what the future holds.
Before the pandemic, many felt we had to carry personal burdens alone and keep them private from our teams. But given the pandemic's widespread impact, there is a sense of shared struggle, and our personal lives are bleeding into the professional world.
In periods of intense change, it’s not necessary or sustainable to shy away from your team's challenges. We all need to feel cared for holistically to feel supported and motivated at work.
Whether you have already shared your personal struggles, or are trying to find better ways to support your team, now is the time to lead with vulnerability. “Your openness gives others permission to share,” says Laura Gale, Coach, and Facilitator for ThinkHuman. “Responsibly sharing what you feel (without putting it on the team to hold) makes space for others to express worries, uncertainty, hopes, challenges, and ideas, and allows for safety, connection, and innovation.”
Encourage your team to share their experiences, but remember that this will be harder for some individuals. Existing workplace power dynamics mean it’s up to managers to pave the way. When leaders share their own vulnerability, it opens the door to the entire team. While you likely won’t share every detail of your personal ups and downs, sharing parts of your own struggles opens the door for teammates to do the same.
Creating a safe space
“If you don’t invest in delivering on your culture, then it means nothing,” says Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp. “And I can guarantee you that the companies that will be standing on the other side, their culture is the reason why. Their culture is the thing that will make them successful during this time,”
Traditionally, work hasn’t been seen as an appropriate space to discuss personal challenges or show vulnerability. So much about the professional world is about how you present yourself, whether that’s through how you dress, the contents of your resumé, or the small talk you make. Over the years, organizations have slowly started invited their teams to bring their whole selves to work, but individuals still tend to keep their very personal lives to themselves.
With the sudden shift to crisis management, people are forced to balance work, childcare, grief, physical illness, and more. As a result, the boundaries between the personal and professional worlds naturally start to blur. During challenging times, leaders should be empowered and encouraged to create safe spaces to talk through personal challenges with their teams. “Your role as a leader is to set the emotional weather for your team,” says Meredith Haberfeld, Founder and CEO of ThinkHuman. “That requires being real and responsible for your energetic wake (how you leave people feeling).”
People won’t feel comfortable being vulnerable unless they see their leaders do the same. Lead by example and create a safe space for your employees to share their burdens with the team. Make sure this is done without any expectation of fixing other people’s problems, but highlight that you’re also struggling and can empathize with them and cheer them on.
Aubrey Blanche, Director of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp, shares her personal approach to leading with vulnerability: “As a leader, you need to make it clear that you’re not asking for help from your direct reports. Instead, you can frame it as ‘here's the struggle I am having as a human being.'
"This shows your team that if they’re struggling, you understand what that feels like. A lot of the work here is normalizing individual struggling. Simply creating space for peers to share what they’re working through and cheering them on goes a long way.”
Leading through uncertainty
“As a leader, when you sit down and question, ‘what do I have to do?’ the most important thing in a crisis is communication. Our people don’t need us to be heroes, but they need us to show up,” says Didier.
Whether your organization has experienced layoffs, is considering structural changes, or has come out unscathed, people around the world are feeling unsettled and uncertain. As nations hurry to find a solution, there are constant periods of ebb and flow. Things will get better and worse in waves, and it’s important to keep this in mind when managing a team. Not everyone will experience the same challenges simultaneously, and the future could impact different individuals in very different ways.
It’s hard to know exactly what the future will look like and what kind of challenges might present themselves. As a leader, now is the time to truly be human with your team. Stay attuned to the fears and uncertainties of different individuals – don’t shy away from difficult conversations.
“We naturally want to ease the burden for team members,” says James Rosseau Sr., Executive Coach at ThinkHuman, “but people are often stronger than we give them credit for and ultimately appreciate you respecting their need for information.” You may not have the answers or even the ability to assuage fears, but you can make your team feel heard and supported.
Leading with vulnerability requires humanity and empathy. Even if there’s nothing you can do to “fix” the situation, just knowing that someone is empathizing with their struggles and cheering them on can go a long way in building support systems in a professional setting.
Let empathy be your guide
The decisions that organizations now face every day are tougher and more ambiguous than ever before. Leading with empathy and vulnerability is the only way to avoid alienating your team and, subsequently, putting the performance of your business at risk. Now is the time to dust off your soft skills and make this your primary management approach. People have to feel safe to share their challenges, so emotional intelligence is key to helping your team feel supported by you and the organization. There’s no exact science to balancing transparency with professionalism, but letting empathy be your guiding principle will allow you to build trust and better support your team.
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