Before you owned your business, did you ever work in a business where it seemed like the rules were written by Lucy in Charlie Brown? Every time you’re just sure you’re going to kick the football out of the park, someone moves it and you fall flat on your behind. That is the challenge of working for a business where transparency is not a priority. Only Lucy feels comfortable and safe. Employees start withdrawing and hesitating to share their creative ideas and opinions. They start playing it safe and only completing the minimum requirements of their jobs. I talked with a manager in a business once, for example, who told me that she had no designated budget for her projects, and so she had no idea whether she was spending too much or too little. Rather than making her feel free to create what she wanted, she felt oppressed and insecure about the expectations. She knew she could do something wrong and not find out until after the fact because the parameters of her work were not clear. Because shifting expectations, rewards, and punishments foster insecurity in employees, it also nurtures an environment in which harassment and discrimination have opportunities to infect the culture.
Most businesses say they believe in transparency, but following through with being transparent can often feel painful and confusing, and therefore many businesses do not actually follow through with being transparent either with their clients or with their employees. Like with acknowledging cultural health issues, transparency can often feel like a threat to privacy, individual achievements, tradition, or hierarchy. The reality is that, even though it doesn’t have to be a threat to those priorities, it often can be depending on how we execute a plan for transparency. A poorly executed plan for transparency can make people feel targeted or isolated within a company culture, and so it is important to plan ahead of time for how transparency could impact employees and bosses in your business. For example, releasing budget information for different projects within a company can be an important step of transparency. But if one employee’s project is underfunded compared to others that can create dissatisfaction or the impression that the employee is disfavored. If that actually is the case, it is better for that information to be in the open than hidden so that the employee has the chance to correct any problems contributing to that disfavoring. If the imbalanced funding is simply an oversight, correcting the imbalance ahead of time can prevent isolating or targeting an employee. Either way, talking with the employee ahead of time in a productive way can prevent the shock of a sudden release of information to the rest of the group.
Transparency is not just a financial issue, though. Transparency can also be key when it comes to promotional opportunities and challenging employees to excel within the business.
Whitney Johnson, in her research at Harvard Business School, developed a framework of learning that she calls Disruption. She explains that our learning is based on an s-curve, and cites E.M. Rogers in his work on Diffusion of Innovations. She explains that the s-curve of Disruption looks like this:
The research shows that growth is slow at first, with a huge spike once we reach the “competence point” or the “tipping point.” After that huge spike, growth slows again as the task we are performing becomes very easy and even boring. Employees are vulnerable to leaving a business at the bottom of the s-curve, when growth is very difficult, and at the top of the s-curve, when tasks become very easy. Johnson recommends “disrupting” our tasks with new challenges at the top of the s-curve in order to bring challenges when work has become too easy.
Johnson estimates that when someone has been in a role for six months to a year, they are at the low end of the s-curve. When someone has been in a role for three or four years, she estimates they are at the high end of the s-curve and in the “danger zone.” At that point, it is important to allow the employee to jump to a new learning curve (a new s-curve) so that they re-engage and experience challenge.
When a business is not transparent and deliberate about advancement opportunities for employees, it risks losing employees at the top of the s-curve. This can be very expensive because it is losing employees just when they are mastering their role, becoming very efficient, and when the business’ early investment in the employee is paying off.
An important example of a type of transparency that can be adopted in order to help increase employee retention and confidence is ‘advancement transparency.’ In order to create transparency in an employee’s opportunities for advancement, I have businesses that I provide a Cultural Health Facilitation for complete Career Maps for each position within the business. A career map can be as simple as this:
Receptionist > Assistant > Associate > Division Manager > General Manager > Director > Franchise Owner > Multiple Franchise Owner
It also includes the objective requirements each position needs to demonstrate in order to be promoted to the next level of the business. You are the one who knows best what you want from those roles in order for an employee to move on to the next promotion, but it is important for the requirements to be objectively measurable and binary. What I mean is that you need to have a clear yes or no about whether the employee has completed the requirement. The career map should track from the position in question all the way to the highest level of what is possible in your industry. If you are an entrepreneur, the map should light the path for how someone stepping into a receptionist role could ultimately become her own entrepreneur in a business like yours or by expanding your business.
You may be thinking that some receptionists stay in their role for decades and are amazing at what they do. Think about Mrs. Landingham in The West Wing, who charmingly and humbly went from administrator in a school to administrator in the White House. She seemed so happy! The problem with this idea is that it does not track with the research about how employees can be most effective and engaged. Some people definitely do stay in positions and move laterally, without challenging themselves to something more difficult. Other people find challenges outside of work and are not interested in pursuing challenging careers, but are happy in that “mastery” and “boredom” place on the s-curve.
What you want to ask yourself is whether those are the employees that you want to be designing your business around. Do you want to be catering to employees who prefer stagnation to challenge or to employees who look for growth? Often, business owners are unconsciously catering to employees who avoid challenge without ever making a decision about it. We do this by hiring employees into roles that have no advancement plan or opportunities. We do this by avoiding employees who challenge the systems and assumptions we have in place.
As a society, we have recognized how important it is to have employees in the workplace who challenge systems that are not working or that are breaking the law, and so we have implemented whistle blower and anti-retaliation laws. Those laws are limited, however, and they do not require business owners to embrace employees who challenge us to grow and question our assumptions. When we can deliberately plan ahead of time to create a business environment where employees who seek out challenge are able to find it, we use their energy in our favor instead of becoming defensive against it.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.