Can you have too much transparency?

Ethics is built on trust. Transparency is a key enabler to trust and thus to ethics. Political candidates commit to transparency during their campaigns. Leaders talk about its importance to achieving a healthy culture.

What does transparency mean to your organization? Please click on the link below and take our short EthicsPoll and provide us with your views.
Transparency is the visual side of ethics. When we can see what is going on, we have more confidence that things appear to be as they really are and the less we question the reasons behind what we are being told or what we are telling each other. Transparency is a structural aid to assessing the ethical fiber of a person or organization. There is a certain kind of equality at work that puts a check on unbridled authority.

But all goods have natural limits. We can have too much transparency. Reality TV shows provide ample evidence of how grotesque too much information (TMI!) can be. When a leader discloses the ugly truth about the current state of the organization (the numbers suggest deep financial problem exist) absent a plan to restore health, anxiety increases, panic might set in, threatening the employees’ sense of safety and security. Hope evaporates into hysteria and despair.
Business leaders should take a cue from Ross Baker, a political science professor from Rutgers University who (in a USA today article, “Quit blaming Congress” Thursday, October 27, 2011, p 9A) exposes the problem of being too open while others operate behind closed doors. Baker cited how Congress has lower ratings than the President and the Supreme Court. In his view, the dominant reason for this gap is that Congress plays out on C-span while the other two branches decide things behind closed doors.

To preserve the transcendent nature of the game, the NFL limits the extent of the films it releases for public viewing. The league consciously chooses not to show “All-22” (where you can see all twenty-two players on the field) video footages from its games. One of the reasons cited: “bone head mistakes” by highly paid and highly talented players are out there in the raw, exposed for everyone to see. Unlike the up close videos where you can nearly see the whites of their eyes, players in the “All-22” video appear like little “stick men” on a chessboard. For the NFL, too much transparency harms the myth and mystery of the game.
Sometimes leaders make the mistake of equating transparency with “thinking out loud.” I want my team to know what I am thinking is the leader’s belief that the openness is earning the trust of his followers when, in reality, the opposite is happening. I often coach leaders not to talk so openly. Rather, it is better to listen to what others are saying and respond deliberately and carefully. The words of leaders are amplified by followers. Transparency works best when leaders decide in public and debate in private.

Consider these guidelines for making transparency work in your organization and personal life:
1st: The “seeing is believing” rule. Make as many decisions as possible in the light of day.
2nd: The “need to know” rule: Leaders should divulge information that will help employees work better.
3rd: The “mind your own business!” rule. We should respect a person’s right to privacy and defend our right to not answer questions that another person does not have a right or need to know.

On the whole, more transparency is usually better than less. So, in the spirit of transparency, click the icon below to see what others answered in the opening poll!

Peter DeMarco is the founder and president of Priority Thinking® and EthicsPoll™. He is an author, speaker, executive coach and ethics educator with 30+ years of experience in leadership development. For more information on Peter’s writing and speaking—including his forthcoming book—visit his website.