Why It’s Unusual to Improve Anything By Demanding Transparency

— April 17, 2018

In organizations where employees generally trust their management and each other, you don’t hear many complaints about lack of transparency. But in other places, demands for transparency can take an ugly tone, and even become so entrenched that it seems as if everything would be all right if only the other side finally showed “what they were up to,” as one of my clients put it.

When colleagues agree to provide transparency but don’t deliver on their commitment, the normal conclusion is that they’re doing something bad — and hiding it. But there’s another possibility: Maybe they don’t actually know how to deliver or report performance that meets expectations.

Skills Make a Difference

Here’s an example. At one of my client companies, the board had repeatedly asked the management for greater financial transparency. The CEO promised more transparency, and the finance staff prepared a number of new reports, but none of the data seemed to do the job of showing how the expenses really occurred. So the board’s complaints continued, and the CEO’s credibility began to suffer.

It wasn’t until almost a year later, after the CFO had been replaced, that the board’s complaints about transparency stopped. What changed?

It wasn’t that the new CFO was transparent and the old CFO hadn’t been, or that the CEO was actually giving the new CFO different direction. It turned out that the new CFO was fully skilled and competent in ways that the old one was not — and suddenly everything just started making more sense.

Interdepartmental Conflict Clouds Transparency

But skill deficits aren’t the only reasons people get criticized for lack of transparency. Organizational roles and structures can also prevent the open candor and completeness that many people ask for — or claim to deliver themselves.

If two parties are entrenched in a conflict, for example, negotiating for collaboration is not likely to be successful. When the leaders are fighting, it’s particularly tough for midlevel interdepartmental staff to be transparent because they could get hit by crossfire from their own bosses.

The parties may start off by trying to be transparent, but they can become resentful and implosive when others keep asking them for transparency and they believe they’ve already provided it. You may want people to show the cards in their hand, but the truth is, they may not even be playing with a deck you recognize.

Here’s a snippet of real dialog from an interdepartmental conflict I recently witnessed:

Director 1: Why won’t you be fully transparent about what you’re doing?

Director 2: But we are.

Director 1: No, you’re not!

Director 2: All you do is pick on us when we show you what we’re doing.

Director 1: That’s because what you’re doing doesn’t work!

In fact, after significant dialog, and following facilitation, it turned out that Director 2’s group didn’t really understand the requirements of Director 1’s group, which they were supposed to be serving.

Establish Transparency Through Competence and Trust

It’s not enough just to be clear and show your cards. You also need to meet some less obvious baseline requirements around competence and trust. How can you support effective information sharing that builds trust? There are three main approaches:

  1. Make sure all of the participants understand your business. If necessary, consider teaching them whatever skills they lack but are already supposed to have. Or replace them with people who have the right skills (and if you can, provide remedial training or find them a job that fits them better). But no matter what, ensure that you’re dealing with people who have sufficient functional competence.
  2. Explain your expectations, starting from the absolute basics. Many of these are cultural norms: “This is how we do it here. We weigh these factors, with the following priorities.” Teach the history of the organization and share the context so that your expectations seem grounded — not arbitrary or based on personal preference.
  3. Treat the participants with respect and congeniality all the way through so that they’ll be open about what their assumptions are and what they understand — or don’t understand.

Demanding transparency is like an accusation of bad intent. Don’t get sucked into that bottomless pit. Instead, establish competence and build trust. The need for transparency will diminish as collaboration, collegiality, and confidence increase.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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