Leading in the Age of Exploding Transparency

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Frank is having a terrible morning.

The seasoned CIO wakes up groggy to a flurry of texts from his team, who found out about the CEO’s retirement from LinkedIn because the internal announcement got stuck in everyone’s spam filters. As Frank huffs and puffs around the park during his morning run, his boss quizzes him by phone about some troubling numbers on a brand-new dashboard. Arriving at the office already feeling beleaguered, he spits iced coffee all over his keyboard when an email alerts him that another leader in the organization dramatically documented her departure on “QuitTok” — racking up half a million views already.

He spends much of the morning fielding questions from a group of software engineers who found roles similar to theirs listed on job sites for 20% more than their current salaries, while his marketing leadership team goes back and forth about whether the numbers from the new dashboards or the old spreadsheets are correct. Just before lunch, his daughter texts him, “Dad, have u seen ur Glassdoor lately?” She screenshots an abysmal rating for his company with comments like “I can’t decide if management are stupid, criminals, or just criminally stupid.”

By the time he staggers to the company cafeteria, Frank has had a week’s worth of misery. And it’s only noon.

Welcome to leadership in a hyper-transparent world. Frank is fictional, but his challenges are real. The hoary cliché is true: Information flows today at the speed of light — and it’s moving far too fast for many leaders to grapple with. Whether it’s social media channels making company dirty laundry public (or even displaying “clean underwear” information — not scandalous, but not intended to be seen broadly) or internal technology systems throwing an array of decontextualized data onto the screens of folks unprepared to interpret it, technology is meaningfully eroding the information advantage leaders have enjoyed since the dawn of the working world.

Goodbye Watercooler Grumbling; Hello QuitTok

Knowledge is power — and today, everyone seems to have it.

Unfortunately, greater availability of information on workforce issues like pay, layoffs, or diversity, as well as business performance metrics at the micro and macro scales, means that the average worker is getting hit with more bad, or at least uncomfortable, news. For leaders and employees alike, this is prompting tough conversations that create a meaningful source of stress: I hear from clients over and over that even the most seasoned leaders often struggle to engage in these challenging conversations, causing both parties to walk away more unsettled than when they started.

Today, leaders’ actions are immediately discussed across internal and external platforms in writing and on a massive scale. The internal messaging app Slack alone boasts 300,000 messages sent per second, and 145 million people log onto Microsoft Teams for similar discussions each day.1 Fifty-five million people use company feedback platform Glassdoor every month, and 774 million are on LinkedIn to talk about work.2 Social media content tagged with the #QuitTok hashtag had been viewed an astounding 41 million times as of April 2023.3 The days when reactions to strategic leadership decisions were confined to a bit of watercooler grumbling are long gone.

Today, leaders’ actions are immediately discussed across internal and external platforms in writing and on a massive scale.

So how can leaders stay sane — and effective — in a world where it can feel like everyone knows everything and talks about it all the time? What can organizations do to ensure that appropriate signals pop through a cacophony of noise, and that the noise doesn’t challenge the well-being of everyone they employ, from the top down?

Four Practical Strategies for Leaders

Here are four pathways to sanity and clarity in a hyper-transparent world.

1. Ease leaders’ burden by dialing up the right kind of organizational honesty. It might seem impossible to stanch the flow of difficult conversations — but a client illuminated a simple strategy for me recently: “It’s easier for our leaders when we’re more honest. That way, they just don’t have to have as many tough conversations.” There’s such truth to this statement. If people will see the reality of a given situation anyway, communicating about that reality from the jump means that individual leaders won’t have to scramble and backpedal when confronted by their teams.

Now does this entail communicating every single detail of every situation to every audience? Absolutely not. What it does mean is changing the frame of every communication from “What is it that we want people to believe?” to “What are the basic facts and pieces of context that people will need to make smart decisions in this situation?” This changes the nature of the information cascade.

In the old model, leaders would be equipped with a static set of messages that the organization assumed would travel undisturbed into teams’ hands and be acted upon unquestioningly (or at least politely). In the new model, the organization is more focused on establishing context for a series of emerging facts — with the implicit understanding that challenging or even contradictory information might come through unbidden. The goal shifts from imposing a set of ideas to creating a discussion that minimizes interpersonal friction and maximizes productive action, even when there’s disagreement or the information is evolving.

2. Reframe communications on a “one world” basis, ending the internal/external distinction. It’s often said that we live in a world of context collapse, where information travels instantly through seemingly disparate circles of communication that would have been disconnected or at least time-sequenced in the past.4

Leaders used to have the luxury of communicating internally in steps before taking the message to select outside figures in a thoughtful progression. Today, once something happens, they can reasonably assume that it will be known internally and externally in short order, across a broad array of audiences. To address this reality, many organizations have merged internal and external communications functions or have tasked heretofore externally focused communications departments with ensuring consistency in messaging to internal stakeholders as well. Shaping communications in a unified manner not only creates stable messaging in a leak-prone world but also generally raises the standard of internal communications efforts — as internal messages are pressure-tested with the same rigor as statements released to the outside world.

Even if an organization has not reorganized its communications function accordingly, individual leaders can work to ensure that their messaging remains consistent across internal and external audiences. While a worthwhile exercise, it can be a delicate balancing act: Leaders are challenged to mimic the language of, say, social media posts while simultaneously nudging their colleagues and supervisors to ensure that enough information is released to sate the needs of curious internal stakeholders.

3. Go “back to the future” on basic communication skills — but add 21st-century emotional intelligence. Although the hyper-transparent world is the outgrowth of a host of quickly evolving technologies, the ultimate leadership superpower in this context is a distinctly low-tech one: being able to speak or write a simple, clear sentence. Like a bell cutting through the chatter in a crowded town square, leaders with excellent basic communication skills are simply better at making themselves heard through the noise. Pithy verbal communications are particularly demanded in situations where a stimulus is coming through quickly and frenetically (such as via social media or internal chat channels) and information might range from somewhat to completely inaccurate. We need the ability to shout “Freeze!” and have everyone stop and think.

We need the ability to shout “Freeze!” and have everyone stop and think.

Leaders who have historically been allowed to hem and haw or bloviate at length will find themselves quickly overrun by the punchiness of contemporary communication streams — whether or not those streams are true or helpful to business progress. All of that said, being factual and logical isn’t enough on its own. A great sentence is as it ever was (the classic writing guide The Elements of Style holds up pretty well after more than 100 years), but science has taught us a great deal about how people absorb information. For instance, information that triggers an emotional response is more likely to be reposted on social media, causing it to often circulate faster and more broadly.5 Leaders who were taught to communicate coolly and unemotionally might find that their messages don’t move through the organization as fast as peers’ more emotionally inflected statements.

In a hyper-transparent world, we might even want to look to the neuroscience findings that caution us that separating rational and emotional thinking is a false dichotomy altogether, and thus, we should stop trying to craft completely emotionless leadership messages.6

4. Build your judgment muscle — and your team’s. Let’s take as a given that the transparent nature of the world and workplace will only increase from here on out. In such an environment, your ability to quickly and sensibly decide what to do with a piece of information — your judgment — becomes a critical tool for survival and success. Leaders will want to consciously work on this skill themselves, but given that they cannot be in every one of a multiplying set of conversations all the time, they’ll also want their teams to get better at judgment. A bank I worked with some years ago started to offer front-line workers some of the same leadership development opportunities it had historically reserved for top executives, based on the rationale that with greater availability of information, those workers would be making the same kind of calls that used to be made many steps up the chain.

There is huge value in being able to trust your team to do the right thing when you’re not around, even when confronted with strange and conflicting information. Practicing scenario planning is a helpful tool in this regard, even for team members who might not come to the table with an innately strong sense of judgment. It can also be helpful for teams to practice evaluating the veracity of information in order to make better decisions. That’s a critical skill in a world in which generative AI is emerging.


When leaders have some practical strategies in hand, leading in a hyper-transparent world doesn’t have to feel like piloting a rickety spacecraft through an asteroid belt of conflicting, incomplete, and often emotion-laden information. We might all sometimes have a version of Frank’s morning, but we can also have Frank’s afternoon – where he cleared his calendar and started focusing on having the right discussions with the right folks, inside his company and beyond.

Six months later, someone posts about Frank’s company on a social media channel: “Management is not perfect, but they try to be pretty honest, which I totally appreciate. They’re really working on doing the right things, and you can see it day to day.”

Frank likes and shares the message.

Topics

Column

Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

References

1. D. Kent, “The State of Workplace Messaging 2023: Microsoft Teams, Webex, & More,” Mio (blog), accessed Nov. 14, 2023, https://dispatch.m.io.

2. I. Lunden, “Glassdoor Acquires Fishbowl, a Semi-Anonymous Social Network and Job Board, to Square Up to LinkedIn,” TechCrunch, Sept. 14, 2021, https://techcrunch.com.

3. M. Cerullo, “With #Quittok, Gen Zers Are ‘Loud Quitting’ Their Jobs,” CBS News, April 21, 2023, www.cbsnews.com.

4. M. Schrage, B. Pring, D. Kiron, et al., “Leadership’s Digital Transformation: Leading Purposefully in an Era of Context Collapse,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Jan. 26, 2021, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

5. M. Xu, Z. Wei, and J. Wu, “How Emotional Communication Happens in Social Media: Predicting ‘Arousal-Homophily-Echo’ Emotional Communication With Multi-Dimensional Features,” Telematics and Informatics Reports 8 (October 2022): 1-14.

6. L. McHale, “The Curious Case of Phineas Gage,” in “Neuroscience for Organizational Communication: A Guide for Communicators and Leaders” (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), 29-34.

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Comment (1)
Yves Garenne
Article Passionnant ! merci. Et dire que les dirigeants des entreprises européennes ont peur de la transparence requise par les CSRD / ESRS ! Cela en devient risible.
Merci Madame

[Fascinating article! THANKS. And to think that the leaders of European companies are afraid of the transparency required by the CSRD / ESRS! This becomes laughable.
thank you Madam]