Let’s reframe how we think about transparency, and its opposite, opacity. We usually think of workplace transparency as a form of enhanced communications or a way of keeping people in the loop. Although those two benefits of transparency are evident, the true practice of transparency has to do with an organization’s ethos. As much as transparency is about doing this or not doing that, at its core, it must be a principled commitment to personal and organizational honesty and integrity.
We can start by acknowledging the fact that there is some information that bosses must conceal from their organizations for legitimate reasons, such as privacy concerns, proprietary agreements, and so forth. But — need it be said? — these circumstances should be very much the exception, and frankly it is usually pretty easy to be forthright about why certain information must be concealed without spilling any proverbial beans. Other excuses that bosses frequently cite to cover up information are more dubious and include reducing scrutiny, evading responsibility, tamping down unrest (often disgracefully labeled “panic” or “disloyalty”), or just good old-fashioned kicking the can down the road.
Note that all the dubious reasons are forms of deception — not out-and-out active lying, but strategic omissions meant to misdirect employees and others or to keep them wallowing in ignorance and to keep the boss operating with impunity. An opaque culture, therefore, is a dishonest culture.
True transparency, by contrast, is honest. Openness to the truth can be painful for all, particularly the boss, but it frees the minds of all, particularly the boss. In a transparent culture, employees can observe and understand decisions and the decision-making process. A wise leader will also assure that the employees can contribute their perspective to decisions, which is vital, and even maximize their opportunities to make decisions for themselves. Thus, transparency requires and demonstrates respect. For their part, employees will generally appreciate being treated like professionals and adults.
Sometimes, though, a boss’s reward for transparency is blowback from employees, from boards and other overlords, and even from outside entities. Good. Nothing worth doing ever comes easy. Bosses in these situations must exercise their integrity, courage, and confidence, and, as we know, exercise increases strength. The more you practice honesty and transparency, the more resilient and able to withstand blowback you will become. And, let’s face it, any boss who lacks the temerity and fortitude to withstand criticism, mild or harsh, should not be a boss at all.
Furthermore, a good boss will welcome feedback, even difficult feedback, listen to it, and respond appropriately. There is much more to learn from staff blowback than there is from just tuning into that little personal advisor yakking inside your head or, worse still, that sycophant on the other side of your desk.
Of course, no boss is perfect. I know I have sometimes reacted to criticism with inappropriate anger and sarcasm. It happens. After all, those who strive to be good bosses are humans too.1 Still, even in those situations, I have tried to welcome employees’ perspectives and to learn where they are coming from. If you cannot face employees in an open and honest way while minimizing your own vitriol and bullying, then resign. You are incompetent. If you yell at employees, then go to hell. A toasty little nook is all set for you down there.
Also, of course, being themselves human, some employees can be most unreasonable in their reactions, trying to play gotcha with bosses or hoping to relitigate lost issues. Even then, though, a good boss will seek to learn from the blowback, which is usually an indication of buried or festering grievances, individual or otherwise. It is better for both employees and bosses to know and understand the bad along with the good than to molder in ignorance, no matter what emotions are evoked. And, rest assured, it is always best to deal with negative emotions up front than to allow them to metastasize.
Transparent workplace cultures thrive on ideas and innovation by fostering an environment of mutual respect. If, as the Bard says, “you got no secrets to conceal,” you and your team can face and conquer challenges together. Transparency has to do with truth, and, as they say, the truth will set you free.
The Benefits of Opacity (Just kidding! There are none.)
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Perhaps you think I am implying that bad bosses are not human. Yes. Yes I am.