Test Your Mettle (and Transparency) Under Pressure

Glass blowing under pressure of heat, like leadership during a crisis

If you don’t follow science in your daily reading or haven’t squeezed in a physics degree in your spare time, you might not have heard an international team of scientists discovered that, unlike most materials that look metallic under immense force, one form of metal becomes transparent under high pressure.

I couldn’t help but form a connection between this discovery and business leaders when I read the article. Smart leaders embody transparent behavior when they experience high levels of pressure in the workplace—which is most of the time. Without a leader’s open communication in the midst of high pressure to perform, employees are left to their own imaginations or chats by the water cooler and can become skeptical about new developments or why decisions are made.

Janet Choi, chief creative officer of iDoneThis, tells the story of Qualtrics, a research software company that espouses the radical transparency approach. “Details and data regarding individual and company performance–including quarterly objectives and results as well as weekly snippets of employees’ past work and future goals–are shared throughout the company of over 300 employees.” Founder and CEO, Ryan Smith, explains that Qualtrics’ brand of transparency sets the stage for recognizing the “largely invisible nature of knowledge work” and thereby minimizes the guesswork about what others are doing and allows employees to keep tabs on the collective performance of the group.

For Smith, assuming this form of data-centric transparency works well under the highly competitive conditions at Qualtrics. Other leaders like Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, exhibit their own embodiment of transparency in a similarly intense climate. From the start, Nadella set his tone of candid communication in a letter to his employees on his first day as CEO: “Today is a very humbling day for me…” Nadella’s philosophy on co-existing with pressure is to facilitate open communication. “A harmonious workforce needs a leader who manages stress well,” says Nadella. “The key is to make sure you’re engaging in a dialogue with your employees.”

Personally, I like to think of transparency in terms of how I can positively influence others, which was a natural stress remedy for me and my team when I was CEO at Prologis. I always tried to ask myself: Will sharing this information help decrease the level of anxiety for employees or help my team? If so, what is the right amount to share so they feel empowered to do their work yet confident our leadership is working diligently in everyone’s best interest?

Whether you’re testing metal in the physical world or your mettle in the business arena, remember that a pressure-filled work environment is often eased by applying transparency that reflects your personal leadership values. Your team is more likely to succeed in spite of the pressure, and they’ll gain tremendous confidence along the journey.

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