How Much Transparency Should You Have in Your High Performing Culture?

A magnifying glass highlights the word "facts" to show their importance

In general, high transparency and information flow is a worthy goal in corporate life as a building block to a high performing culture. Our organizational alignment research shows that keeping important information accessible and flowing within and across an organization fosters clarity and trust. When the facts are there for all to see, there are no hidden agendas or opportunities for deceit.

But sometimes the facts don’t tell the whole story…or they may tell a story you don’t want to hear.  Is transparency always the best policy? The answer is not so simple. It seems to depend…on your unique corporate culture.

Let’s take an example from the recent news. There has been growing public distrust over how some police officers use force against citizens. Consider the rash of problems in the way police target, seize, treat and incarcerate alleged law breakers. In some instances, incidents have led to fatalities at the hands of the very people we entrust with protecting us all. Experts offer a number of solutions from better training of the police force to the one that has gained enormously in popularity…the wearing of body cameras.

It seemed so simple. Cameras would show the facts and we would then have an unbiased record of what actually “went down.” But as this practice of body cameras has been introduced there have been some unintended and undesirable consequences. While the videos may record what apparently happens in confrontations, it also records upset victims, grieving family members, innocent bystanders and those exercising their right to free speech and demonstration. Unregulated release of these videos can threaten the right of a person’s privacy.

The answer is not as simple as we at first thought. The benefit of preventing bad police behavior has to be weighed against the potential loss of privacy.

We experienced something similar in our firm a few years ago.  In an effort to improve clarity, accountability and transparency, we collectively decided to make performance bonuses public within the company. It sounded good at first. Transparency would support accountability and there would be no secrets on a team that valued pulling your own weight, team work and being recognized for your contribution. But there were unintended consequences. The team did not like their own numbers on view and, instead of spurring team members to greater effort, the opposite was true. There were incipient signs of jealousy, a need to make excuses or unnecessary competition that hindered client success. Here, this unhealthy competition did not promote better business results. This was a group who held themselves to their own standards.  Even though performance targets and bonus plans were public, they did not want to explicitly and publicly share compensation information.

So what is the lesson? You need to know what strategy would work best to drive positive performance consequences in your particular culture. Would transparency encourage greater levels of engagement and performance? It would in some environments…but not in all.

We learned from our transparency experiment. When it didn’t work as intended, we learned and adjusted.  You can do the same. The changes you make…whether toward transparency or away from it…must fit with the way you do business and the cultural norms you have established.  When your culture is strong and healthy, don’t let unintended consequences of a new policy undermine it.

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