Lots of companies fuss over the idea and promise transparency by the boatload, except when it really matters. For new businesses, transparency isn’t always a virtue.
27-Dec-22 – Transparency will be the most abused, overused, and unhelpful word in 2023. Accountability will be a close second. You didn’t hear those words here first, and if you haven’t already heard pithy pronouncements with these words as anchors at least a dozen times this week – in every conceivable context – just give it a day or two. You can’t escape the unending media barrage of self-serving pronouncements, pandering polemics, and pitiful pronouncements – hair shirts, mea culpas, and tearful testimonials – flowing through every channel of our digital universe.
Every petty politician, petulant publisher, grasping government official, besieged college president, battered police superintendent, suck-up social media maven, corrupt team president, and clueless sports authority is piling on the “tell all” campaign without the slightest intention of making significant changes in the wretched ways they do business. Nor are they disclosing any image-damaging information which – if and when actually and honestly shared – could make material improvements in the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, players, and professionals.
When The Washington Post announced surprise, sizable layoffs to take place in the first quarter of 2023, practically the first words in response from the Post Guild, its union, highlighted the hypocrisy of the Post’s oft-asserted commitments to the twin virtues of transparency and accountability. These folks are all happy to gore everyone else’s ox and hoist them all on their own pathetic and hypocritical petards as long as none of those chickenshit comments come home to roost.
It’s just an excuse for bad behavior, bullying and BS, all cheap talk and utterly free of cost, commitment, or the slightest consequences for these two-faced jackals. A recent ChatGPT demo spun out a six-point corporate mission statement in two seconds, composed entirely of meaningless mush and clichés with core values that included integrity and accountability, and a poignant testament to the power of transparency and open communication. The bot regurgitated a comprehensive crock of jargon and crap which would be at home in the handbooks of any Fortune 500 company – and just as empty and useless as what they now display.
But the rest of us aren’t free from these lies or able to ignore the problems such pretense presents, especially for startup entrepreneurs and new business builders who are trying to create and nurture their company’s culture. Because, like it or not, an entire generation of current and prospective employees has been brought up by peacekeeping parents steeped in conflict avoidance and ego inflation. The kids have been lectured by academics interested in no opinions other than their own. And they’ve been led to believe that brutal honesty, unfeeling frankness, and “constructive” criticism are today’s be-alls and end-alls – demonstrably greater goods and values than traditional company assertions – that are far more pressing and important than any others. Their parents and school academics have set them up for failure and the rudest of awakenings when they enter the real world and start spouting their naive opinions and truths.
The newbies feel and have been told by their folks that they need to bring their own “truth” and their whole selves to work with them, speak their minds and their unfiltered thoughts, and share it all unreservedly and without regard for the consequences or the feelings of others with those around them – like it or not. But aggressive transparency, random truthing, and sharing whatever strikes their fancy is not the way the real world works – never has been and never will be – and, in fact, it’s a prescription for certain and consistent disappointment.
As a result, it falls upon each and every CEO who’s trying to inform, excite, and educate team members about their own company and its culture to figure out how to carefully, quickly, and clearly separate the facts of life and business from these persistent and sadly prevalent impressions and misunderstandings.
I’ve previously written about the issues around “situational ethics” but primarily with an outward focus: the need to tell the whole truth all the time to clients and customers. Half a lie is still a lie.
While the same general ideas apply – the truth doesn’t vary based on circumstances – the way you handle internal discussions and information sharing are considerably more complicated when your people have radically different ideas about how things should go. While honesty is clearly a virtue, complete candor is far more of a challenge. Especially in a new and growing business – where the culture is still formative and malleable – the simple facts and the bottom line are that the truth needs to be wielded with care. Not all truths are for all people and not everyone needs to know everything.
This philosophy may be hard to swallow for your newer team members but the ones worth keeping will recognize both the need and the necessity of carefully navigating these very treacherous seas. Being open and upfront at the outset may not get you a lot of friends, but it will ultimately get you the right ones. It’s better to take the beatings and lectures upfront and refuse to wobble than to live for the longer term with an insincere and undeliverable promise. And, believe me, I appreciate how hard it is to hold your tongue when a 25-year-old kid is telling you how to run your business. Like having Ronald McDonald criticize your taste in clothes. But listening to advice sometimes accomplishes a lot more than heeding it.
Still, for my money, there are a few ideas that you need to set in stone from the get-go:
1 The first matter is money. Money is what people without talent use to keep score. No one has some God-given right to know what everyone else in a privately-owned business earns. Public companies are obviously different. In today’s complex and stressful hiring game, salaries, bonuses, options, and every other kind of perk are part of the puzzle and built into the most competitive packages. They’re nobody’s business but the boss’s. End of story.
2 Democracy is a great concept, collaboration is terrific, consensus is a mixed blessing at best, and everyone’s entitled to their opinions and to provide constructive input into the decision-making process. However, not every idea or suggestion is smart, appropriate, or even useful. Once a decision is made by management, that’s the end of the conversation and everyone gets on board and moves forward. All the wood behind one arrowhead.
3 Constructive criticism is much more than simple fault-finding. Newbies need role models far more than they need critics. Showing rather than telling is a helpful and instructive approach for both parties. If you can’t offer a better way to proceed and a clearer path, it makes the most sense to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Everything looks easy if it’s someone else’s job.
4 At some point, endless conversations become a matter of “my way or the highway” because people need to get down to business. Newbies need to be reminded that they may eventually earn the right to do things “their” way. One clear sign of maturity is when you realize that it takes less time to do as you’re told than it does to complain incessantly about what you’re doing.
There are truths which are not for all people, nor for all times.