Transparency

Why I don't shield my team from bad news

I think there's an interesting concept that's prevalent, which I believe could actually be quite dangerous. It's the idea that as a CEO or executive of a company, you need to shield your team from bad news, the risks of a startup, and other negative aspects that are inevitable on the startup journey.

One of our core values at Buffer is to Default to Transparency. This means absolutely everything in the company is shared knowledge. It was scary at first, not least because the idea goes very much against the grain. I found myself hesitating, not because I genuinely could think of reasons not to share, but simply because no one else shares some of the things we've shared.

What it means when you shield your team

I think one of the most fascinating things about witholding information of any kind is the message it unknowingly sends to the team.

I believe that if you hold back information, you are silently telling your team that you don't trust them. Frédéric Laloux put it well in Reinventing Organizations:

"In most workplaces, valuable information goes to important people first and then trickles down to the less important. Sensitive information is best kept within the confined circle of top management. The underlying assumption is that employees cannot be trusted; their reactions could be unpredictable and unproductive, and they might seek to extract advantages if they receive too much information."

The reason starting a trend of secrecy is so dangerous is that it's self-reinforcing:

"Because the practice is based on distrust, it in turn breeds distrust"

That is, the policies you set up based on these assumptions might trigger people to try to cheat the system, because they start to dispise it. Once you find people are doing this, the natural thing is to introduce yet more controls and restrictions.

How shielding your team could hurt you as a founder

Beyond affecting the culture and spirit of your team, I believe that withholding information puts unnecessary strain on yourself as a founder. A startup journey is a series of many ups and downs, and the lows can really be difficult. There are many sad examples of things becoming too much for a founder, and more often than not they've kept the stress to themselves.

The traditional structure of a company in a hierarchy naturally leads to a pyramid, with a single person at the top. The law of pressure in physics can illustrate the outcome here:

pressure = force/area

That is, the smaller the area, the higher the pressure. In the following example, the pressure from an under an elephant's feet is far less than that from a woman's stiletto heels:

Therefore, if bad news comes up and you take the whole burden on yourself, the pressure is much higher than if that news was shared across many people.

The ego at play

Another reflection for me is that whenever I have felt that I should hold something back from people in the team, I believe it is often my ego at play. I am essentially saying that I can handle the situation better or take more than others in the team.

It's as if I'm saying that I am more responsible than the rest of the team. It's like I'm treating my team like children, which is ironic because many people in the team have children and I don't yet! I am convinced that if we can let go of our ego as leaders and share information and responsibility, we will be pleasantly surprised.

Holding onto information or key decisions is in a lot of ways a fear of giving up control, at the expense of trust and moving faster thanks to shared decision making. I think often as leaders we feel a need for control and privileges, and this comes almost entirely from ego. One of the reasons I try to practice daily meditation is to more easily act without ego.

Do you guard your team from some of the tough decisions and risks of your company? Do you think that in some cases we should? I'd love to hear any thoughts at all on this topic.

Photo credit: mararie
Diagram credit: Leeds Vineyard

How we handle team emails at our startup: Defaulting to transparency

It’s an exciting time for Buffer. Toby Osbourn just joined and we’re now 16 people. Toby joined us as a Backend Hacker, and he’s been a joy to work with so far. Within just a few days we can all feel his impact.

In the first few days, Toby has been fantastic with asking questions and learning about the Buffer culture. One thing he asked me is how we think about email at Buffer. I thought that writing a blog post as the answer could help lots of other founders too.

Buffer Value #2: Default to transparency

One of our highest values at Buffer is to default to transparency, and we aim to live to this value in many dimensions. We stick to this through good times and bad, and we had a chance to demonstrate this recently with our unfortunate hacking incident. It was amazing to see the support we received by staying transparent and trusting our customers with the full details of everything happening.

Within the Buffer team we have complete compensation transparency and every team member knows each others’ salary and equity stake through stock options. We go all the way - we share whether we’re fundraising, we share when we have acquisition interest, and we share the bank balance. In fact, we share the bank balance and revenue numbers publicly.

Transparency builds trust and triggers better decisions

"lots of traditional, widely accepted, and perfectly legal business practices just can’t be trusted by customers, and will soon become extinct, driven to dust by rising levels of transparency, increasing consumer demand for fair treatment, and competitive pressure" - Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage

There are many reasons we default to transparency at Buffer, and perhaps the most important is that I genuinely believe it is the most effective way to build trust. This means trust amongst our team but also trust from users, customers, potential future customers and the wider public who encounter us in any way. For example, we have a whole blog dedicated to sharing everything about how we run the company.

By sharing all our decisions, numbers, successes and failures, we are showing our customers and supporters that we are responsible and strive to do the right thing.

Keith Rabois, COO of Square, put better than I ever could the second reason we place such a priority on transparency in an interview with Rob Hayes of First Round Capital:

Ultimately, if you want people to make smart decisions, they need context and all available information. And certainly if you want people to make the same decisions that you would make, but in a more scalable way, you have to give them the same information you have.

Defaulting to transparency with email communication

Narrowing down to the aspect of team emails, this is an area where we also strive for complete openness and transparency. Stripe do something similar and provided great inspiration for us.

When you start working at Buffer, it can come as a little bit of a shock. Instantly you’re receiving every email exchange between team members, in every single team. If you’re in our Happiness team you still see all the emails going on in the engineering and product team. You see design iterations and progress on our mobile apps. You see emails about our content marketing and work towards getting press.

This might sound a little crazy, and probably certainly seems totally overwhelming. But that’s the price we’ve decided it’s worth to have complete transparency. Nothing is more important to us. We have chosen to be open, and we find ways to handle the volume.

You also see emails of external communications happening. Interview requests, getting press and discussions with partners.

When you experience it, there is a magical aspect to it. You learn how Leo goes about getting us in all the top tech news sites when we launch a new feature. It all contributes to a faster pace of learning for the whole team, and means that everyone naturally knows a lot of what is going on.

How email transparency works in practice

We have several internal email lists, which only Buffer team members can send to:

  • team@ - this goes to the entire team
  • engineers@ - includes all our engineering team
  • heroes@ - for our happiness hero (customer support) team
  • crafters@ - related to content marketing
  • design@ - for design discussions
  • product@ - for product feedback and signals
  • metrics@ - anything to do with company metrics
  • biz@ - related to buffer for business
  • bizdev@ - for BD activities (partnerships, integrations)
  • marketing@ - related to press activities

Whenever you email something to do with Buffer, you almost always cc or bcc one of these lists. For example:

  • email a specific team member and cc a list
  • email an external person and bcc a list
  • email to a list to notify a whole team

The general rules are as follows:

  • if it’s “to” you, you’re expected to reply
  • if you’re specifically cc’d, you’re expected to read it
  • if it’s your own team that’s cc’d, you should read that
  • you should strive to always cc or bcc a list

Handling the risk of email overload

Admittedly with a growing team the overall email volume has gone up a lot in the past couple of months. We’re so bullish about transparency that this isn’t a huge concern for us. That said there are a few things we’re doing to ease that volume:

  • we’re starting to encourage filtering out some emails between other team members so they’re not in your inbox but they’re easily accessible and browsable
  • transparency often simply means that you can access that information when you want to, not that it’s pushed in front of your face
  • we’ve set up a private Facebook group to share links and emails that don’t need a reply. The concept of a “like” is proving to be very powerful for messages where you want to show appreciation but might not need to reply

Times when we might keep email private

There are a few times where email transparency doesn’t feel quite right. Usually this revolves around specific personal circumstances or a potential upcoming team change (e.g. a promotion or thinking about a firing). With this said, we truly strive for transparency and want to improve here too. Currently we try to always ask each other whether we can accelerate some of these discussions and bring in transparency.

How do you handle email at your company? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: Juin Hoo