Last week I sought to reframe our perception of transparency and its opposite, opacity, not as something we merely should do but as a matter of foundational principle. True transparency in a leader is not an action or state but is the result of a values choice, a personal standard to live by. Opacity, though, seems easier and is a much more common, almost universal, move among leaders. This popularity is probably due to the superficial (and illusory) simplicity of opacity.
Simply put, transparency is a commitment to honesty while opacity is a commitment to dishonesty.
To extend the logic, since dishonesty has no purpose in a workplace and can cause great harm, anyone who operates dishonestly or fosters a culture of dishonesty, particularly a boss, is definitionally incompetent. Therefore, opacity, as a form or source of dishonesty, is a manifestation of incompetence.1
As I noted previously, there are legitimate reasons for bosses and administrations to withhold or conceal information, but these are small in number and should occur infrequently as well.
And the benefits of honesty and transparency are evident: trust, collaboration, innovation, improved well-being, increased morale, staff stability, and so on. The simple fact is that good bosses partner with their people in order to lead sustainable, scalable, productive, successful, and healthy organizations and thereby maximize their effectiveness as they fulfill their organization’s mission.
So why, then, do so many bosses resist true transparency and choose opacity, which, as we now all must certainly agree, is a form of deceit? Let’s call it the rapacity of opacity.
Some employers understand the value and benefits of transparency and gesture toward it but lack the necessary integrity to implement and maintain such a culture. After all, transparency can be hard, particularly at first. These quasi-enlightened bosses end up faking it to the point where they may even deceive themselves into believing their own ruse. The thing is, even with such a self-deceiving boss, the employees will still catch on rather quickly. Imagine (or perhaps recall) how demoralizing it is to work in such a place for such a boss. Think of how much is lost by misleading employees, who are potentially full of great insights and bold ideas. A boss who wastes potential and good will is incompetent.2
Of course there are other bosses who are even more conniving and intentionally use opacity as a means to obscure their activities in order to gain control and to manipulate employees and their organization, often by regulating the movement of information. As I have written elsewhere, control is a fool’s pursuit, but oh-so many bosses cannot resist its allure. Clearly, the illusion of control is the opioid of the boss class. By contrast, transparency is, on its surface, a relinquishing of control since it encourages the free-flow of information.
Beastly bosses will make all sorts of excuses why they must conceal information to protect the organization, but in reality, their opacity is strictly for their personal benefit, the organization be damned. You will see these creatures slither up the ranks or pounce from organization to organization — always improving their own lot. Perhaps you are wondering, if passive or semi-conscious deceit and opacity are incompetence, then what is it called when a boss intentionally chooses deceit and opacity for personal benefit?
The Audacity of Opacity
The cost of fostering an opaque workplace culture is high. If transparency is based on honesty, then, as we have seen, its opposite, opacity, is based on dishonesty. Needless concealment is not honest. Period. Employees can grow used to such a culture, even thrive to a degree (and usually for the wrong reasons), but they are rarely content, and their lack of contentment leads to mistrust, lowered productivity, resentment, and turnover. Worse still, it is axiomatic that if you work in a fundamentally dishonest culture (and that is exactly what an opaque culture is), you are likely to relax your own principles regarding honesty. Corners then get cut, and soon people are lying or acting out just to protect themselves. In response, instead of reassessing and readjusting, bad bosses will just redouble their commitment to concealment, and it all escalates from there. The habit of opacity is a blackhole, and organizations with opaque cultures dance on the event horizon.
Contrast that situation with a workplace truly committed to transparency, where benefits will flow. Yes honesty can be challenging, particularly for bosses who must then face criticism from employees and others. That’s what the big bucks are for, remember? Workplace transparency enriches the culture the same way honesty in a personal relationship can strengthen that relationship, particularly over time.3 Transparency removes barriers and alleviates concerns, thus freeing the minds of employees and bosses to focus on pursuing and achieving the organizational mission.
Opacity, being fundamentally dishonest, does the opposite, sowing distrust and worry, which distracts from everyone’s ability to address the mission and do their job properly. Opacity is audacious in the worst sense of the term — arrogant and contemptuous. Of course, you could probably think of organizations that lack honesty and transparency but continue to function. Maybe you work for one. But let’s face it. They are broken, insipid things compared to what they could and should be. Imagine their potential if they were not so hampered by dishonesty.
Opacity, like its kissing cousin, control, is popular among bosses because it seems easier at first. It requires little commitment or effort, but, again, like control, it’s superficial ease is an illusion. In short order, opacity will spread distrust and paranoia. Transparency, by contrast, takes guts, resilience, and stamina, but it generates gobs of goodwill and can contribute to employee dedication, productivity, and a spirit of common purpose. Competent bosses commit themselves to transparency because transparency best gets the job done. Opacity is the enemy of truth, trust, and teamwork. Opacity is the enemy of veracity. Therefore, bosses who embrace opacity are, simply put, bad at their job.
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Incompetent, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
1a: lacking the qualities needed for effective action
1b: unable to function properly
2: not legally qualified
3: inadequate to or unsuitable for a particular purpose
Jim’s First Rule of Incompetence: If you are convinced that you are perfectly competent as a leader, you are in fact perfectly incompetent in everything.
This claim is not controversial, right? Honesty and communication are key to maintaining healthy relationships. Right? Not sure? Ask your partner.