As internal communication managers, one of our goals will inevitably be transparency, both in terms of clarity of information and accountability. A transparent business can spot the potential of individuals, the good ideas, the opportunities. It can also spot the errors, the mistakes, the misdoings. In a quest fuelled perhaps by the ethical ideals of openness and honesty, could our business actually be too transparent?

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, David De Cremer suggests that with great transparency comes great responsibility. For every opportunity to spot a great idea is the ability to spot a mistake. However, this is not necessarily a good thing for employee relations. As De Cremer says,

“The mistake, is assuming that a one-to-one, rational relationship exists between transparency and innocence.”

De Cremer’s evidence suggests that too much transparency might decrease the very elements we want to foster; co-operation, engagement and accountability. He identifies four main areas in which a see-through culture may not be beneficial.

When transparency results in blame

Transparency in every action in a business means that mistakes can be spotted more easily. This should be a good thing for quality control, innovation and continual improvement, but there is a problem. Transparency shows an error has been made, but it doesn’t explain in any way WHY it happened.

All too often, society and the media are keen to point the finger of blame at an individual, or feel the need to find someone to take the fall for a mistake. Yet often, as endless public enquiries bring to light (at vast cost), it is a complex interaction of events that cause something to happen.

The danger is that, in a transparent business, employees may be cautious in their approach so they cannot be blamed if things don’t go to plan and the trail leads back to them.

Transparency can generate distrust

Do you cc everyone in on emails in your organisation? If so, why? Chances are, if you cc everyone, you don’t trust them in some way. De Cremer suggests that the more trusting the organisation, the less emails are cc’d. Furthermore cc-ing emails has nothing to do with involving colleagues.

“Although including everyone involved in the project in an email is a clear sign of transparency, our results indicated that people evaluate this practice as signalling distrust, which reduces their own trust in, and commitment to, the organization.”

Transparency and cheating the system

In a rather odd turn of logic, employees who are totally transparent as their organisation requires may feel ‘entitled’ to cheat a little. If they had faithfully recorded information, they might choose to enhance it a little to achieve their end goal, be it bonus or recognition.

Recruiting for the Resistance

Complete transparency that aims to reward and punish with equal measure could engender a rebellion. A high ethical stance by management can create a culture of negativity as much as a highly punitive one, as neither sets of standards can be met by the employees. As a result, and in a phrase that might well strike horror into the hearts of innovation managers, De Cremer suggests that:
“Too much transparency can result in people hiding good ideas.”

Opaque Transparency

Hiding good ideas is the precise opposite of what transparency is supposed to achieve, so how can we as managers prevent employees throwing stones through our glass houses, or at least, misting up the glass?

The answer lies in being clear ourselves on the precise purpose of transparency.

“What are the business goals that transparency will help achieve? What insights are you really trying to acquire, and how will you use them to improve the business?”

The culture of transparency

Making transparency work for you rather than against you does involve re-embracing some rather Victorian-style maxims:

  • Learn from your mistakes: the organization recognises that yes, mistakes will happen but the way forward is to learn from them, not to always punish without progress
  • Forgiveness: an organisation may say it wants employees to learn from their mistakes, but that will be difficult if an employee is already sacked for their mistake. This attitude would also allow businesses to re-evaluate and adapt the systems and processes that allowed the mistake to happen in the first instance. Thanks to changes in our banking system, for example, the days of one rogue trader being able to bring down a whole bank should be gone.

And there’s the rub – should. The evidence suggests that if systems, managers and businesses are too demanding of complete transparency, individuals may feel they are being micromanaged. As De Cremer suggests:

“Transparency alone does not create a healthy culture, facilitate the shift of knowledge into performance, or improve trust.”

At TalkFreely, we create communication apps that allow you to be as transparent as your culture will cope with. Our apps allow employees to engage, participate and cooperate in a supportive and non-judgemental virtual environment. The progress of ideas, challenges and innovations can be tracked in a transparent system, yet within a structure of mutual collaboration and (therefore) shared accountability. For more details, call us.