In these uncertain times of flagging revenues, corporate reorganizations, and the ever-present threat of layoffs, many workers feel like they’re tiptoeing through a minefield of uncertainty. For employees, it’s an exhausting and anxiety-inducing way to live; for organizations, it translates into disengagement, low productivity, and attrition.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Managers have a powerful tool they can use to guide employees through the minefield — one that can’t avert every crisis but can at least shed light on the path ahead: transparency.
These days, it seems like everyone is talking about it. Across industries, leaders are heralding transparency as a way to remedy the mistrust and disengagement employees experience when they feel like they’re out of the loop by fostering an atmosphere of openness and accountability.
And for good reason: One study shows management transparency is the single biggest predictor of employee happiness, because it makes employees feel like they can trust their leaders. When workers know what’s going on, they’re more engaged, productive, and creative.
But the conventional wisdom seems to be that being transparent is easy — a happy jumble of personal integrity and good intentions that largely comes down to being open and honest. The message seems to be that if a manager or CEO is generally an upstanding person, the rest will take care of itself.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. Transparency isn’t just about disseminating information. Rather, transparency is the continuous, intentional, and proactive sharing of relevant information — while being mindful of constraints arising from confidentiality, risk mitigation, and high-level strategic considerations. It’s about actively keeping employees in the loop, anticipating their concerns, and offering clarity before uncertainty has a chance to take root.
There’s a reason why this is necessary: Our brains evolved to keep us safe from danger, to err on the side of caution by overreacting to potential threats. In the face of neutral or ambiguous stimuli, our default is to perceive those stimuli as threatening. When people feel like they’re out of the loop, studies show, they experience it as social exclusion. We worry about the future of the company, our job security, and performance evaluations. Is my boss happy with my work? Am I on the brink of being let go? How is the organization faring? Are we facing more layoffs, and if so, will I be affected?
Without clear, proactive communication from leaders, employees fill in the gaps with assumptions and worst-case scenarios. That’s why transparency is difficult — because the absence of dishonesty doesn’t equal the presence of clarity.
To be sure, transparency doesn’t mean indiscriminately sharing information. Sometimes certain details could be sensitive, may incite unnecessary panic, or inadvertently jeopardize business plans. Inevitably, leaders will encounter instances when they would like to share information with employees but are constrained by confidentiality agreements and legal implications or prevented by company policy or directives from higher-ups from revealing details that could otherwise benefit their team.
This doesn’t mean leaders aren’t practicing transparency. It just means transparency operates within certain boundaries and is heavily context-dependent. But even when leaders aren’t at liberty to share all the information at their disposal — say, in cases of organizational restructuring or layoffs — they can still uphold the spirit of transparency by communicating their decision-making process, reasoning, and plans for supporting affected employees. By signaling their intent to keep employees informed and engaged regardless of the constraints, leaders demonstrate their commitment to openness.
The key is to communicate proactively, providing more information than you think you have in order to temper threats and create an environment of psychological safety.
Consider interactions between managers and employees. Leaders often assume their faces and voices are easy to read — and that direct reports can infer good intentions without stating them explicitly. But the reality is that our emotions are far less apparent to others than we think, and the status as manager or boss sometimes means that ambiguous cues —such as a neutral resting face — can get misinterpreted, leading to miscommunication and distrust. The solution is to be proactive, sending “positive social signals” by smiling, nodding, and supplying explicit verbal affirmations like, “I like your idea” or “I appreciate your contribution,” to cultivate trust and comfort.
Organizational communication works the same way. Just as we need to overcommunicate positivity in interactions with employees to counteract misinterpretations, managers can engage in proactive transparency, actively disseminating any relevant information they’re able to share in order to dispel ambiguity and reduce perceived threat.
Foster a culture of openness
Start by cultivating an environment where honesty and openness are the norm. Make it clear that every question is welcome and that no topic is off-limits as long as it contributes to mutual understanding and collective productivity. Regularly schedule open forums or town-hall meetings, listen deeply to people’s concerns, and answer questions as openly and thoroughly as possible.
Proactively share relevant information
Don’t wait for rumors to circulate or anxieties to arise before sharing critical information. Regularly update your team on company performance, strategy, future plans, and any changes that may affect them. Choose a regular cadence and method of communication that fits your team’s needs, such as weekly email updates or monthly meetings.
Lead with empathy
Transparency is crucial for building trust and fostering a productive work environment, but there is such a thing as too much information, and transparency doesn’t mean managers should share everything they’re able to share at all times. It’s about providing the right amount of information at the right time.
Say a company is experiencing a revenue dip but has a stable outlook and is in no danger of going under. Sharing that information could be constructive, providing clarity and security for employees. If the revenue dip continues for months, employees may need to be alerted that layoffs are likely, but managers must balance the threat caused by uncertainty against the threat of bad news.
Striking a balance between sharing and oversharing is more art than science, but within the constraints of what you can and can’t share, the guiding principle behind your communication should be empathy. Put yourself in employees’ shoes. What information would you want or need if you were in their position? What concerns or questions might you have? Ultimately, being transparent means being a steward of information, using one’s best judgment to decide what to share and when, and always keeping the welfare of the employees in mind.
Solicit feedback and be responsive
Finally, don’t make transparency a one-sided process. Tune in to your team’s emotional responses to the information you share, and solicit their input directly. Managers should consider employees’ perspectives. What are their concerns? What uncertainties keep them up at night? What kind of information will help them feel more secure and focused on their work? Use anonymous surveys, shared documents, or live conversations to understand their preferences about how much information they want and when.
Transparency isn’t just about giving information — it’s also about being accessible and responsive. So cultivate a culture of two-way communication. By encouraging employees to voice their concerns and ask questions, you’ll not only gauge their needs, you’ll also help build a culture of trust and openness.
Remember, the goal is to decrease uncertainty and create psychological safety. Your actions should aim to enhance trust, make employees feel secure, and empower them to focus on their work without being derailed by unnecessary worry. By following these guidelines, you can foster a culture of transparency that ultimately supports the health and productivity of your organization.