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Transparent Communication

By Zena D. Zumeta, J.D.

The characteristics of transparent communication are:

  1. It gives the information that people need in order to understand what is going on at the time that they need it.
  2. It avoids surprises.
  3. It provides follow-up for concerns that are raised.
  4. It is consistent both in content and process.
  5. It creates expectations that are then carried out.

Transparency and Trust

Transparent communication is useful because it builds trust.

I have found in my work with organizations that the items listed above, information, no surprises, follow-up, consistency, and expectations carried out, are the major variables that increase trust in an organization. So working on transparency of communication will also work on increasing trust.

I want to focus on two of the characteristics listed above: surprises and expectations carried out.

Surprises

I have found that people's reactions to surprise is somewhat counter-intuitively negative. I have also found that the higher the number of surprises people experience, the lower the trust level within the organization.

Everyone has expectations, and we expect our expectations to be carried out. When they are not carried out, we are surprised, and we tend to distrust the person responsible for that happening. If explanations are given to us, especially explanations that make sense, we can let go of our expectations and new ones are created. If we have taken actions in reliance on the previous expectations, it may take a little more for us to let go of them.

Creating Expectations and Carrying them Out

We create expectations in our communications all the time. Other people then assume that they understand what is going to happen. When those things don't happen, trust is eroded. The more that occurs, the more trust is eroded. For this reason, I generally advise administrators and other leaders to be very conscious of the expectations that they are creating. In general, it is easy to forget the ones that we create, and hard to forget the ones that others create. Therefore, we forgive ourselves for not carrying out expectations, but don't forgive others. And of course, others have not forgiven us.

Expectations we create that are not carried out may have an additional negative consequence: people rely on the expectation to their detriment, and then feel betrayed. Betrayal is a level beyond distrust; that is, if we distrust someone, it may lead to our creating some distance between ourselves and them. However, if we relied on something they said and that reliance led to a negative consequence, we don't have that buffering distance, and our reactions to them are much more emotional. If someone goes out of their way in reliance on an expectation we created, it requires a lot of apology to undo the feeling of betrayal.

The best remedy for creating false expectations is to undo the false expectation as soon as possible, with apologies. If someone believes that we have intentionally created a false expectation, it makes the situation even worse. Therefore, it is helpful to be as upfront as possible if an expectation cannot be met.