One of the things I value highly in leadership is transparency. I love the definition of the figurative meaning of transparency: a state in which things are free from any attempt to hide something.

Living in a state or condition where things are free from any attempt to hide something can be tricky from a leadership perspective – the question often seems to be, “How much is too much?”

This is an entirely realistic concern. If your small business, not publicly traded, is struggling financially – what does it mean to be transparent? How do you act in a way that is free from any attempt to hide something? What does this mean in conversations about your financial situation with other shareholders? With managers? With employees? With customers? With the general public?

My feeling is that the further down the line you go from owner to general public, the less transparency exists. An owner is usually much more transparent about his company’s financial position with other shareholders than he is with managers. There is more transparency with managers than with the general public. Most privately owned businesses do not share the ins-and-outs of their financial status with every customer or potential hire who walks through the door.

What about what you really think about your products? How transparent are you about your opinions about the item or service you are offering to the public?

Fox News reported a story that was quickly going viral last week. Chinese restaurant goes viral for “extremely honest” menu descriptions .

A Chinese restaurant owner in Montreal is receiving attention for the descriptions of the items on his menu, including things like “not THAT good” compared to another menu item, and “not a huge fan” as he compares it with food he ate while in University.

Why would a restaurant owner do this? Fei said the restaurant wants to be “very honest, very true to ourselves and our customers.”

It appears he knows his restaurant’s limitations and said, “We don’t want them to come with high expectations and then feel disappointed. We are not always the best food restaurant, but we try to do our best every day and to satisfy our customers and not oversell anything.”

Here are some observations:

Expectations for transparency are changing in almost every sector.

This does not mean that a company’s brand is no longer important. It does mean, however, that it is not good enough for a company to exist on a perception of brand alone. In some sectors, that might still be the case – but I would contend that over the last several decades, the expectation for openness about product quality, and admitting you have made mistakes when that quality is not reached, has increased. If your yoga pants are see-through, say something, own it, make better pants. If your phone battery starts fires, own it, recall it, and fix the problem. The more a company tries to spin-doctor the problem, the more it loses its respectability. Attempts to protect your brand identity by not admitting to a mistake will almost always backfire.

Hearing companies say, “Today was not great. We always try to do our best for you and today we missed the mark… We hear you, and we’re reversing our pricing updates” is not part of my expectations, especially from a software company. But that is exactly what Microsoft posted after receiving backlash from their decision to increase their Xbox Live Gold pricing.

Today was not great. We always try to do our best for you and today we missed the mark.

We hear you, and we’re reversing our Xbox Live Gold pricing updates.— Xbox (@Xbox) January 23, 2021

Microsoft had announced the change in pricing, increasing the 6-month cost of the subscription to what the same subscription for a year previously cost. Industry experts think Microsoft did this to funnel people into an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription, an Xbox Live Gold and Game Pass bundle. (See the Forbes article here)

As the negative feedback came in, Microsoft quickly admitted that they missed the mark – and not only returned the pricing to the previous levels, they also are removing Gold requirements for free-to-play games.
Does this count as transparency? Not entirely. We do not know why they made the change in pricing initially. We do know that they admitted to missing the mark, and that they made course corrections. It does show increased vulnerability and openness to admit mistakes, something many (myself included) are not used to seeing from industry-leading tech providers.

Do you find yourself expecting more honesty from companies than you used to? When I go to a restaurant and ask the serving staff what they recommend or if they have a favorite dish, I hate it when I hear that everything is good. If they don’t have a favorite, give me a top 3. If they don’t like the food at the restaurant they work at, I would rather hear them say, “I am just here to make money. I would never eat here.”

Levels of transparency are changing, and boundaries are shifting.

As I started coaching people, I would often ask them if they were also receiving other professional help. A simple yes-or-no would have been fine, but people would often share that they were seeing a therapist of some sort and then explain why. The boundary that used to exist, which made people very cautious about sharing about receiving mental health care, is rapidly shifting, especially among young people. Many people feel that there is nothing to hide in this realm, which used to be intensely personal.

These shifting boundaries will lead to uncomfortable conversations and workplace situations. When generations collide, we will likely find ourselves dealing with a lack of reciprocity in openness on lots of issues, the mental health dynamic being only one of them. What happens when a person who believes these issues should be personal is interviewing someone who is very transparent about their current situation?

When we moved to Berlin, we noticed that certain taboo topics in the US are discussed much more openly here. As we were outfitting our apartment and had guests over, it was not unusual for them to ask about pricing on certain items. Inquiries about the costs of our new refrigerator or television were not uncommon. These questions violated the boundaries I have as an American (and more specifically, a Midwesterner). I found myself avoiding answering.

Another example comes from a time we were looking for a secondary school in Berlin. The system is very different than it is in the US, with the equivalent of local middle school and high schools specializing in specific educational tracts. The process can be very intimidating. Students and their parents visit schools, view the campus, hear from the faculty (including the selection/application process), and often have times to hear from the students themselves. I was astonished to hear students’ answers when parents asked them, “Do you enjoy being a student here?” Based on their clear responses to the negative, we decided it would not be the right school for our son (while based on the academic qualifications, neighbors decided it was the perfect school for their children.)

I would contend that while these are examples of the impact of cultural boundaries – the generational differences in expectations in transparency are nearing the level of cross-cultural impact.

The standard people use to evaluate leaders may be shifting from “having it together” to “displaying transparency.”

I have the distinct impression that the management ideal used to be having it all together. The idea of presenting a very managed, sculpted, tailored image to people was the gold standard. The perfect manager wore the right clothes, had a supportive spouse, had kids who got good grades and stayed out of trouble, was a member of all the right clubs, ate at the right restaurants, and never had anyone see them with a hair out of place. The management ideal did allow disarray only when the top button being undone and the tie being loose was carefully used to potray the scripted level of exhaustion.

The attraction of this managed image is beginning to fade. The more together someone appears, the less real people consider them to be. I am noticing a new reaction to this desire for transparency (of me from others). I am calling it “managed transparency.”

The other day someone asked how I was handling the strict lockdown rules in Berlin, and I told them that I have not been exercising as much as I should and am stress-eating. Trust me, I did not need to tell them that. I have gained 10-15 pounds in the last year since Covid has impacted our lives in Germany. Me admitting it is not being transparent; it is my scripting what I am transparent about – and I am sharing what people can already see.

Managed transparency is a half-step at best. When I, as a leader, practice managed transparency – and receive true transparency in return, it sets up an emotional imbalance. Transparency seeks equilibrium. It is better to say, “I am not comfortable talking about this,” than to give the appearance of being more open than you are.

There is an art to transparency.

Finding that transparency equilibrium is way more Bob Ross than it is Paint-by-Number. It would be great if someone could explain when to be more transparent or when to be more closed, but it is not that easy.

When a restaurant owner says, “We are not always the best food restaurant, but we try to do our best…,” and he shares what he thinks about the dishes on his menu, that’s appropriate transparency – even if it is more than most restaurants share.

A leader telling his team that he is struggling during COVID, that he has moments of fear or stress that makes performance difficult, or finds it incredibly hard to be productive with kids all at home – that’s appropriate. Depending on the team or organization, more details can be helpful for team unity. But there are limits! There are some things your team does not want or need to hear, and sharing inappropriately and calling it transparency is also a recipe for disaster. If you find yourself returning to unhealthy coping mechanisms – it may be okay to share that with your team. Your team probably does not need to hear exactly what your unhealthy coping mechanisms are.
That is where it gets tricky. Sometimes you will get it right – and find a place where your team (and maybe even customers) levels up because of your honesty.

Sometimes you will miss the mark and under (or over)share. The key here is that leaders need to be moving themselves and their organization toward a culture that values transparency way more than previous generations have.