Transparency: many of us hear this phrase all the time, and many more of us claim to want more of it. Companies want more transparency from their employees. Employees want more transparency from their employers. And customers want more transparency from everyone. Transparency is key to establishing trust, exposing and reducing the number of wasteful practices in the workplace, and increasing leadership effectiveness. Transparency has also been proven to increase employee accountability, lead to more efficient workplaces, and boost companies’ reputation with potential talent.
However, though transparency comes with several benefits, it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. Yes, honesty and trust are important, but is there such a thing as too much transparency? The overall consensus is that yes, some organizations might go overboard with the whole “sunlight through the window” approach.
While data transparency is valued by all and can generate mutual trust, it can also distort behavior in the workplace and lead to adverse changes in employee conduct. Cultures that place too strong of an emphasis on complete transparency leave workers feeling exposed and watched, leading to a decrease in creative thinking and problem-solving capabilities. Moreover, it can actually lead to rebellion as more workers take the ever-present eye of their supervisor as a sign that their uniqueness is being challenged. And finally, too much transparency may result in more dishonesty than pre-transparent days as employees begin to feel more like children in a daycare center than teammates working towards a common company goal.
Transparency in the Workplace: When a Good Thing Can Go Awry
Someone once said, you can never have too much of a good thing. Well, that person clearly never had too much chocolate cake in one sitting, experienced too many sunny days without any rain, or watched too many episodes of The Walking Dead without becoming somewhat of a zombie themselves. Too much transparency can end in disaster, and has been proven to do so in a few different case studies. Here are the common transparency traps you can fall into, and how to avoid them:
Back in 2012, researchers from a number of European universities conducted an experiment with a Deal or No Deal scenario, aiming to show how transparency impacted employee decision making. One control group was asked to play the game show on a lab computer while the other was asked to play the game as if they were on live television—complete with a host, camera, and audience. What they found was surprising.
While many would have expected the game-show simulation group to have had more fun with the activity, what researchers found was the they were actually more reserved, and that their fear of losing lead them to “play it safe.” Computer lab players, however, found the anonymity to be liberating and were willing to take more risks. The conclusion? Too much transparency results in an overly cautious workplace. Employees are more apt to stick to the same processes they’ve been using because it makes them feel safe, instead of exploring new and possibly better ways of doing things.
The solution to this is relatively simple: be transparent about what transparency means in your workplace. Make goals for the transparency initiative clear from the beginning. and make sure that managers take time each week to discuss metric sharing with their teams and for employees to express their concerns and suggestions for what to track and how it affects their job performance.
The Blame Game
Complete transparency is meant to reveal areas of weakness and waste, but it is not necessarily able to reveal the cause of said problems. As a result, many people will search for why something happened, but too few will look inward. Instead, they’ll point fingers at Bob or Jan, or that other department. This can create a culture of distrust and toxicity, encouraging individuals to hide their mistakes, and worst of all, make company-wide collaboration difficult, if not impossible. Additionally, focusing too much on the “why are we here” instead of “how can we improve,” may unwittingly discourage even the best people from exploring new solutions, as even the strongest employees make mistakes.
Make sure that management emphasizes empathy first and foremost. Everyone from the mail room clerk to the CEO has the same goals: to innovate, grow, and prosper. There is no such thing as “to each their own” in business, and if that is understood by employees at all levels of the company, working together to find a solution becomes the default. Best of all, with this kind of attitude employees won’t feel compelled to hide their mistakes, which means a more productive and efficient work environment.
The Savior Complex
It can happen in business, sports, school, or any other area of life in which teamwork is required – everyone else comes to rely on one person to “save the day.” In the best case scenario, the organization becomes dependent on a single person, creating a bottleneck and undue pressure. In the worst case, trust is given to the wrong folks, inflating some egos and diminishing all other employees’ sense of importance. If only one person within an entire organization “understands” data, or if that person’s interpretation is the only one people trust, data does the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. Instead of enlightening, educating, and engaging employees, data confounds and alienates them.
Democratize your data! Data visualizations are easier to comprehend and process, so employees who don’t have analytics backgrounds can still gain insights and contribute to the conversation. Use dashboards to promote data literacy, and make data available to relevant parties. Provide employees with the training they need to analyze data and engage with dashboards. In short, encourage a data democracy, not a data dictatorship.
Gaming the System
The phrase “gaming the system” is perhaps best exemplified by the phenomenon of parents holding their children back a year — or “redshirting” them — with the belief that the extra year will give them a competitive edge over their younger peers. While older kindergarten students do perform better on tests and teacher evaluations, ironically studies show as time goes on, older students’ performance plummets. By middle school, any advantage has largely evened out, and once students reach college the younger cohort actually outperforms the older ones.
When researchers explored the reasoning behind this occurrence, they came to one conclusion: students who are bigger and smarter than everyone else eventually grow board and begin to think that everything—including learning—should come easy to them, and instead of striving to do better, they became complacent. The younger children, on the other hand, learned early on that if they wanted to keep up, they had to work for it, a mindset that translates into the workforce.
What I’m trying to say is that people are inherently hardwired to “cheat the system”—kids do it and adults do it, and it’s not a habit that is easily broken. Quick wins, however, may undermine long term success. Once a person learns the rules of the game, it is inevitable that they will find a way around them—and some people are willing to “bend the rules” a bit if it means that they’ll get ahead—especially if there is money at stake. Transparency is known to increase friendly competition, which is not necessarily a bad thing; however, if there are loopholes to be found, you can bet your bottom dollar someone will try to exploit them and potentially undermine the integrity of the business plan.
Don’t reveal all of your secrets, plain and simple. Yes, it is important that people know how they’re being judged, but keep the details to yourself. Employees don’t need to know exactly how the sausage is made, and if there is too much of a focus on the granular metrics, they can lose sight of larger goals and successes. For instance, if you give more weight to one metric in an equation than another, keep that a secret so the employees don’t focus on increasing one metric at the expense of another. Transparency is good, but a little bit of mystery never hurt anyone.
Undue Stress and Distractions
Finally, too much data transparency can cause undue stress in the workforce. If employees glean insight about the company that is not exactly positive, they may stress about their job security and catastrophize about things outside of their control. If they gain information about their current performance, the same fears could plague them… I had a bad month, they may think, does that mean I’m out of a job? While it is crucial for employees to always be thinking about how their performance affects the bigger picture, stress and worry could negatively impact their overall performance and even drive valuable employees out the door.
Again, this is a situation in which a little bit of nuance can go a long way. Share information strictly on a need-to-know basis, and keep in mind how certain information may impact employee morale. When it comes to reporting on employee performance, constructive criticism is best, as anything less is not only unnecessary, but harsh feedback can, again, negatively impact employee esteem.
Transparency is certainly a great thing to have in the workplace. However, if managed poorly, it can result in costly problems that may be difficult to correct. Wise managers understand that data transparency alone does not a healthy office culture create—trust, flexibility, and the proper facilitation of knowledge does.