Universal Truths - Openness
Updated: Feb 6
We live in a world where concepts, knowledge and personal philosophies are being thrown into question. Through the Universal Truths series, my aim is to face core concepts of human life that apply in the workplace. We will derive fundamental first principles by which we can operate and navigate the inevitable grey areas. If you disagree with anything written here, write to me. If your arguments make sense, I’ll be more than happy to revise this article. Otherwise, let me know how this applies in your workplace
Are you frustrated about something at your workplace yet feel unable to express it? Is there a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off? Was there a time you’d have preferred to discuss something in private, but instead had to do it in front of your team? Openness is the governing factor behind all these common human experiences. The lack of openness, or wrong use of it when privacy would have been preferable is something we’ve all experienced. In this article, we’ll examine how openness can go wrong, as well as how to make the most of it to build a healthy environment.
Before diving into practical examples, it's important to take a step back. Here are essential principles and questions to ask yourself before having a conversation. I call it Operational Philosophy.
- Quality of ideas and substance matter more than rank and seniority
- An organisation protects its team members for positive reasons
- Terminating an employee is not a taboo topic. It is however a matter that deserves a whole study in itself and must be approached methodically.
- Managers and individual contributors deserve the same level of respect. Each one plays a different role that serves a bigger picture
Questions to ask oneself before having a conversation
- Am I being truthful?
- Is this a good use of each person’s time?
- Will I be receptive to this person’s feedback?
- Does this conversation help the other person and the organisation?
- Is there a clear outcome to this conversation?
The failures of openness are manifested in 2 forms, obfuscation and its polar opposite; excessive disclosure. For a given situation, there is a Shadow and Light way to approach it. Here are some practical situations and how to shift the polarity with regards to openness.
Situation: A team member is not performing
Shadow: The situation is allowed to go on. Over time, team members shut out that person
Light: Raise performance issues as fast as possible. Work with the team member to improve their performance. Let them go respectfully if such an improvement is unlikely
Situation: An individual behaves in a way that creates toxicity in the workplace
Shadow: The individual is never confronted and the team suffers. If that individual has a senior position, they start attracting other individuals, creating even more toxicity.
Light: Build a culture where people stand up for themselves knowing they will be supported. Immediately confront unacceptable behaviours. Give the guilty individual an opportunity to change and make amends. If this is a repeated pattern, terminate them, immediately.
Situation: A team member has made a mistake
Shadow: That person is individually attacked. They are not given a view of how they affected the organisation. is allowed to go on. No learning takes place.
Light: The person responsible is encouraged to be a part of the solution to ensure similar mistakes don't happen in future. The whole organisation learns a new best practice.
Situation: A manager is pushing their team too hard or in the wrong direction
Shadow: Seniority automatically equates correctness. Individual contributors never dare to speak up due to fear for their career.
Light: Value individual contributors just as much as managers. Recognise each person plays an important role. Encourage a culture where people can share their opposing views and ask for help when a situation becomes untenable. Ensure that senior staff other than a direct manager are regularly getting the pulse on how team members really feel.
Situation: The organisation is facing an existential challenge
Shadow: Difficulties remain hidden. As watercooler rumours expand, so does the shared sense of fear. Team members are put under increasing pressure due to management's existential concerns. Layoffs and bankruptcy come as a surprise.
Light: Team members are entrusted with the Truth and given an opportunity to help save the organisation. Individuals can, in full awareness, decide to right the ship or work elsewhere. Successful turnaround propels careers forward. Failures are handled in humanely.
Situation: A new hire is failing to fit into the organisation's culture
Shadow: The individual receives only criticism or silence, instead of education & information. The new hire is not made aware of what ideas have proven to work, which ones haven't and why. They are perceived as "knowing it all"
Light: The team does its best to welcome the new individual and bring them up to speed. Ideas and welcomed and evaluated. Any idea that isn't a good fit becomes a learning opportunity for the individual as they learn why. In turn, they are able to progressively generate better ideas that will fit the organisation. New hires can become drivers of innovation much faster
Situation: An individual mistake needs to be discussed with the team
Shadow: The failure is raised publicly with no aim for learning. Attention is turned towards the individual instead of the problem.
Light: Individual criticism happens privately. Group meetings are focused on sharing problems and identifying solutions. If an individual must be named, the leader of the conversation aims to create a shared learning opportunity and reduce the likelihood of similar future mistakes across the whole organisation.
Situation: An individual shares a personal difficulty with a colleague
Shadow: The information makes the rounds across the organisation. The individual is ridiculed or loses consideration
Light: The person on the receiving end of the confidence honours the trust they have been shown. If they decide to share the information, it is only so that they can help the individual
Situation: Information about a project needs to be shared
Shadow: Mistrust abounds in the organisation. Individuals fight to be included in updates. Communication has more counterparts and loses accountability. Increased noise makes it more difficult for each person to focus on the information relevant to their mission.
Light: Conversations only include individuals with a direct impact on their substance. Projects are documented on an asynchronous medium, which any person can browse when they wish to. The team has full context about the project and a direct understanding of the role they are to play. Trust abounds across the organisation
We just saw how you can take various difficult situations and turn them around. Doing so will inevitably serve the organisation’s growth. It can be tricky figuring out what to say, to whom and when but openness ultimately derives from shared good will. Practicing openness requires a shift away from the instinct towards individual self-preservation, retention of information and unwillingness to have your ego bruised by receiving criticism. Achieving this creates an environment of trust. With trust, you can understand real issues and move towards resolution, creating significant positive impact towards your community of colleagues and clients.
This article was part of our Universal Truths series. I’d love to hear how this applies in your workplace and whether you disagree. If you share our Operational Philosophy, check out Anya, our solution to sparking real workplace conversations