Why Transparent Communication Must Start at the Top

To encourage open and honest communication, engineering managers must lead by example.

Written by Kimberly Valentine
Published on Jun. 06, 2022
 Why Transparent Communication Must Start at the Top
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Trust. In a time when “fake news” proliferates, political discourse is dizzyingly dishonest and society feels unsteady beneath our feet, establishing trust might seem like an ill-fated ambition. 

But it isn’t all that difficult, and it’s needed more than ever in the workplace. Of course, establishing trust takes a commitment to authenticity — and often vulnerability. While the concepts of transparency and honesty may be obvious ones when it comes to creating solid relationships in the office, the question of who makes the first move might be more surprising. 

It turns out that cultivating trust in the workplace really needs to begin with leaders. Research by the Trust Edge Leadership Institute found that nearly 90 percent of employees in the United States would trust their organization’s senior leaders more if they communicated transparently about mistakes. 

Furthermore, while trust can develop an effective and committed team, the lack of it can lead to an organization’s undoing. Researchers also found that, while nearly two-thirds of employees say an increase in trust in their organization would encourage them to contribute more ideas and solutions, three-quarters say a lack of trust in leadership would likely lead them to resign.  But building trust within an organization takes time and a strong emphasis on communication, especially in engineering teams where client deliverables are the central focus and work can easily become siloed. 

At Buildout, leaders encourage employees to ask questions, and the trusting environment that that engenders enables team members to speak up when they’re stumped, resulting in increased knowledge and productivity, explained Alan Spadoni, VP of engineering. At Finix, Chief Technology Officer Ramana Satyavarapu said that he and his team practice open, honest and direct communication, both internally with colleagues and externally with clients: “Withholding bad news or only sharing good news leads to the erosion of trust.” 

Built In Chicago sat down with Spadoni and Satyavarapu to learn how they’re strengthening team communication to cultivate trust and gather their advice for budding engineering leaders.

 

Ramana Satyavarapu
Chief Technology Officer • Finix

 

Finix is a fintech company developing payments solutions for SaaS platforms. 

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged on your team?

We celebrate our wins and openly discuss our failures. “Open, honest, direct” is a core cultural value here, and it is constantly advocated and practiced. In monthly tech town halls, we hold ourselves accountable for our technology shortcomings, have candid discussions and devise action plans to improve. Our bias for action ensures quick course-correction and helps us stay laser-focused on our goals. 

Engineering teams are builders and problem solvers at heart, and being open, transparent, humble and thoughtful in our communication is so important. A core part of communication is listening. It is the key skill engineers need to develop to better understand what they are building and solving for before working on the problem. 

We apply the same principle of open communication externally when talking to our customers. We are one of few fintech payment facilitation companies that openly shares our system availability and service-level objective with our customers.

The most important thing we can do is acknowledge that making mistakes is human, then learn from those mistakes and improve.”

 

Why is open, honest, direct communication important, and what effect has it had on the way your team works?

Trust is the foundation for any world-class team. It is the combination of integrity and competency. Sugarcoating the bad news gradually erodes trust within a team, a company and eventually with customers if objectives or expectations are not met. Everyone is vulnerable and no one is perfect. The most important thing we can do is acknowledge that making mistakes is human, then learn from those mistakes and improve. 

Our open, honest, direct approach — in other words, zero tolerance for sugarcoating — had a transformative effect on the collaboration and effectiveness of our technology organization. Over time, I’ve seen the team evolve from only celebrating wins to openly discussing failures and proactively seeking to help as soon as they learn of a shortcoming. 

 

What advice do you have for engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

Every manager can be a great leader. Start with being authentic, always speak from your heart and openly admit your individual or team shortcomings. Most importantly, drive all discussions toward learning and develop action plans to address failures. 

On a cautionary note, avoid echo chambers, which often have negative outcomes. There is a fine line between openly sharing failures or shortcomings and painting a dire picture. Always remember that the goal of sharing mistakes is to motivate. 

Last but not least, recognize individuals who cultivate healthy communication and take note of others who exhibit unhealthy communication so that you can address it. Platforms like Slack amplify both good and bad communication. Managers must stay on top of their team’s internal and external channels to promote healthy communication. Lead by example. 

In summary, open communication promotes trust. Trust boosts morale and efficiency, all of which create customer delight. It’s a spiral effect.

 

 

Buildout colleagues having a team huddle in the office
Buildout

 

Alan Spadoni
VP, Engineering • Buildout, Inc.

 

Buildout develops marketing automation solutions for the commercial real estate industry. 

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed and encouraged on your team?

Everyone has impostor syndrome sometimes. And people may be afraid to ask questions due to embarrassment or the possibility of appearing uninformed. These feelings are understandable, so we aim to build and cultivate a relaxed and inquisitive environment. 

Our team members are not going to be judged if they ask a question they’re stumped on, no matter what it is. By asking informed questions, they can learn and apply that knowledge. We cover this during our interview process when discussing team culture with candidates, and we reinforce this concept during our 90-day onboarding plan.

 

Why is encouraging questions an important habit to cultivate, and what effect has it had on the way your team works?

Being stuck is one of the worst feelings at work, and it’s one of the top productivity blockers. The most important responsibility we have within software engineering is to keep work flowing smoothly. Even as we moved to a remote-first work model and dealt with the isolation resulting from Covid-19, we maintained a strong team culture and increased our production by 15 percent from when we were in the office. Our developer tenure is outstanding, and I think a large reason for that is our commitment to working together and not standing in each other’s way. 

Work should be easy — not the problems we solve, but the processes we follow.”

 

What advice do you have for engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

Work should be easy — not the problems we solve, but the processes we follow. Bureaucracy, red tape and overall friction during the software development life cycle are what separates productive companies that build great user experiences from those that don’t. These things also quickly alienate developers. If you have tenure issues, this is one of the first areas to dive into. 

Finally, leading by example is extremely important. Your engineers won’t be as hesitant to ask informed questions if you do the same. Practice what you preach.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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