With Internal Communication, Transparency Isn’t Always the Best Approach

Many executives strive for transparency in communication, especially when they’re dealing with employees. This is a rational approach. It’s reasonable to assume that more information and ample detail will help people feel comfortable, informed and engaged.

But, is transparency always the best policy when it comes to internal communication? No. And in some cases—particularly during times of major change—transparency can actually cause more harm than good.

When you communicate with employees, you’re (presumably) doing it for a reason. You want your employees to take the information and do something with it: adopt a change, be productive, work safely, adhere to a new policy, buy in to the corporate culture, etc.

If you’re communicating without an objective—if you don’t want to affect the behavior of the individuals who are reading or hearing your words—you’re wasting your time and resources.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that effective internal communication isn’t about transparency at all. It’s not about telling everybody everything that’s going on at any given time. It isn’t an exercise in sharing massive amounts of information and letting employees do with it what they may.

Rather, internal communication (all business communication, really) is about determining the precise messages that you need to share with discrete audiences so you can drive specific behaviors.

To do it well, you need to tailor your messaging for the employees you’re addressing, and you need to make sure you cut down on the ancillary noise that can get in the way of driving the behaviors you want. Usually, that means sharing less information, but doing it in a more targeted, actionable way.

Transparency can be a problem in three major ways:

Employees will miss key points

When human beings hear new information, their natural tendency is to relate that information to their own states. They ask the age-old question, “what does this mean for me?”

If you’re simply inundating employees with detail after detail, flooding them with information in an effort to come across as transparent, they aren’t going to hear much of what you have to say. Instead, they’ll be scanning all your words for the details that impact them directly.

In this instance, there is a very real possibility that the audience will miss critical points—the points that are actually vital in driving the behaviors you need. They’ll be too busy trying to figure out what matters to them that they miss what actually matters to them.

Employees will exaggerate minor points

Likewise, in a too-much-information scenario, it’s likely that employees will hear tangential or inconsequential details and take them to heart. They may seize on words or phrases that sound particularly scary or powerful and assume that they’re the operative points you’re trying to make.

Transparency, in this case, causes confusion, and could lead employees to adopt behaviors that run counter to what you actually need them to do.

Employees will be stressed out by in-process information

Executives who value transparency are tempted to share information before it’s ready for prime time. They often provide in-process messages before all the details have been hammered out.

This can be devastating. Ambiguity and open questions cause anxiety. When you tell employees a bit of information before you know what it means to them or what you need from them, you’re going to cause unwarranted stress and consternation. That’s a recipe for disengagement and pushback.

Think of it this way: Imagine if your doctor told you that you have cancer. Then, imagine she told you that a) she doesn’t know the type of cancer, b) she doesn’t know the prognosis, and c) she won’t be able to answer those questions for several weeks or months. How would that make you feel? Anxious, stressed, terrible and unable to focus.

Giving people a tidbit of information in the name of transparency is not always the most effective—or (depending on the weight of the information) the most humane—communication approach.

Sometimes, less is more. The best internal communication isn’t scattershot and it’s not completely transparent. It’s effective in conveying critical information that drives behavior and engagement.

Lean Out Communications is a trusted management consulting firm that empowers organizations to navigate change and grow sustainably. We use a proven collaborative process to help you engage your key stakeholders with practical, repeatable and scalable solutions, tailored to your needs, so you can meet your unique objectives.

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Gene Nichols

Gene Nichols, MBA, managing partner, has more than two decades of global experience helping organizations navigate successful change, manage their reputations and drive sustainable competitive advantage.

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