Radical Transparency Is the Key to Productive Teams

This article originally appeared on the High Alpha blog.

We live in a golden age of personal productivity: we can communicate with friends & colleagues around the world, we can summon a car to our precise geolocation, we have checklists for our checklists…and it’s all available to us from the phone in our pocket or the watch on our wrist.

Yet for as efficient as we are individually, we’ve each experienced a range in the quality of the teams we’re on. Some of the teams we’re on just can’t seem to get anything accomplished and we’ve resigned ourselves to operating at the “speed of corporations”.

The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by over 50% in the last 20 years. More than 75% of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.

Yet once in a while, we catch a glimmer of hope and we “click” with our colleagues and, somehow, an exponential amount of work is accomplished. Five years ago, Google set out to determine the anatomy of a “productive team,” spending millions of dollars on the most ambitious and data-intensive study ever produced.

And the outcomes were surprising! For as much as we believe that effective teams are built on friendships or similar personality types, none of these assumptions were supported by the data. Instead, Google found the best teams functioned in an environment of trust & dependability.

5 Dynamics of a Productive Team

  1. Psychological Safety: Can we take risks?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other?
  3. Structure & Clarity: Are our goals & roles clear?
  4. Meaning of Work: Is this work important to me?
  5. Impact of Work: Does this work really matter?

In his book, “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni reaches a similar conclusion to Google’s — at the base of all effective teams is a foundation of trust. He takes it a step further and places the burden of creating an environment of vulnerability on the team leader.

You see, Vulnerability must be modeled. “That sounds scary,” you might think. “I don’t want to tell all of my deep, dark secrets to my coworkers.” That’s not the type of vulnerability that I’m talking about. You’d be surprised how little we actually do share about ourselves with those we work with.

Every time I have an interaction with a co-worker, I learn something about them: their working style, preferred method of processing information, ability to address conflict. But I’m forced to have thousands of interactions over months or years before I can begin to derive patterns about their implicit nature.

Let’s look at an example. I spent 2 years in internal consulting — literally the “pressure cooker” of teams. This environment contained:

  • Project-based teams forming & un-forming every 3 months
  • Highly-visible, time-sensitive work completed under pressure
  • New subject-matter on each project that placed the team in unfamiliar territory

What kind of outcomes would you expect in this scenario?

If you said arguing, disagreements of opinion, interpersonal tension, and inefficient outcomes…you’d be WRONG!

In fact, we were one of the most productive teams in the corporation at driving to outcomes. Why?

Radical Transparency.

The creation of a safe environment for a more complete sharing of ourselves so that others may more fully know us & more fully appreciate us, in order to better work together to drive outcomes

How did we accomplish this?

The start of every project began the same: with a team meeting to review the Charter of our project. Most teams stop here, but we paired the Charter kickoff with an Interpersonal kickoff as well: a 30-second elevator pitch by each member of the team about themselves.

Mine goes like this…

Hi my name’s Ryan. I’m an engineer turned business strategist. I’m an extrovert, so I process aloud; feel free to jump in or cut me off. I’ve got a wife & 2 kids, so I leave at 5pm. You’ll find me online in the evenings, but never the weekends. I’m hoping to improve how I react to bad news; please feel free to hold me accountable, by speaking with me privately immediately after in these difficult moments.

This is “making the implicit, explicit.” Consider the alternative:

  • How long would it have taken you to learn these things about me?
  • How many potholes would we have had to hit, until you realized a pattern about my nature?
  • How many hard conversations would we have to have, frustrated at each other, without realizing what caused the situation?

You see, Radical Transparency sets a foundation of trust between team members that overflows into our work and prepares each other for effective conversations, to work in ways that leverage each other’s best selves, and to validate the self-worth of our team members by acknowledging them as individuals.

It doesn’t eliminate “hard conversations”, but it does change the way they occur…let’s call that: “Hard conversations, made easy.”

My “self- pitch” accomplishes this in 3 ways:

It defines expectations

You know how I process information & that I can be a bit of a talker, so you’re unsurprised when I start rambling mid-meeting as I struggle to wrap my head around a new piece of information & you feel comfortable cutting in to explain it to me.

It sets boundaries

You know my preferred communication style & what’s out of bounds, so when you call me on a Sunday, after I’ve said “weekends are holy to me,” & I’m a bit terse, I can remind you why & ask if this really is an emergency interruption that’s worth breaking the boundary over.

It gives permission for feedback

I’ve told you not only what kind of feedback is meaningful, but how to provide it. By exposing my areas for development, I’ve given you permission to speak into those areas of my work. Even better, I’ve told you how to address me, because how you say it is as important as what you say.

In order to set ourselves up for success, our team scheduled regular feedback sessions over the course of the project, between the Sponsor, Leader & Team members. This rhythm provides regular opportunities for feedback, holds members accountable, and develops team trust to provide unscheduled feedback.

So now, I invite you to bring to mind a dysfunctional team that you work with:

How could you change the team dynamics by modeling radical transparency?

Could you imagine desiring to spend time with this team once they’d been transformed in their working style because you first took the risk to be vulnerable?

Thinking about ways to improve the way your team operates? Join us for a webinar on November 16th to learn how organizations are creating high-performance teams by enabling employee success.


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