Transparency has become a buzzword

Transparency has become a buzzword


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The opinions expressed here are my own, do not reflect the views of my organization, and should not be be attributed to or associated with my organization in any manner.

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The Cultural Aspects of Transparency

Wait, what is “culture”?

Culture represents the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group.


Sometimes culture can also be defined as the personality of the group, as GitLab assumes too. I personally find that definition appealing. Different organizations define culture in various ways, some opting for more elaborate explanations than others. Regardless of which definition resonates with you, one thing remains clear: culture is not something we read and accept as a fixed entity. It is a dynamic, unwritten set of rules and assumptions that constantly evolves.

For better or worse, many organizations with hierarchical structures tend to develop a culture around the vision of their leaders, which is then influenced by the ever-changing mission of the organization. This type of culture is often documented as a set of principles used for hiring and organizational growth. However, an online document describing an organization’s culture rarely provides a comprehensive glimpse into what truly happens within it.

Why is that?

  1. When employees are afraid of their managers, they are unlikely to speak up and suggest adjustments to the culture documentation
  2. As culture is an unwritten set of rules, employees are less inclined to fully document it
  3. For-profit (and even many non-profit) organizations often have a clear agenda to present themselves in a positive light

Of course, there are situations where the publicly portrayed version of an organization’s culture aligns closely with reality. These organizations often engage in community efforts, welcome online and offline criticism, and foster direct connections with the outside world. In such cases, employees naturally form relationships and take pride in being part of such a workplace, without explicit directives from the top.

I believe there is a strong connection between culture and transparency, particularly in the hierarchical structures of many organizations today. I have always believed that the downsides of non-transparent, top-down, profit- and growth-oriented organizations are apparent to everyone, including their leadership.

However, recent global events have proven this belief to be false, or at least raised doubts about how the short-term deterioration of culture impacts long-term goals. It is precisely because of this that I am writing about the benefits of fostering a transparent organizational culture. My hope is that some of my 124 readers hold managerial positions within their organizations and can gain insights from this exploration.


The Internet’s Understanding of Transparency

After conducting extensive research on transparency and exploring the perspectives of various organizations and individuals, I have compiled their thoughts and opinions into the following sections.

🙈   Transparency can be harmful

Let’s go in the opposite direction for a little bit, and acknowledge one thing first: transparency can and is harmful in some situations.

  1. If sensitive information, such as trade secrets, intellectual property, or customer data, is disclosed publicly, it can harm the organization’s competitive advantage and reputation
  2. Transparency can lead to demoralization among employees if negative or critical feedback is shared openly without proper context or guidance, creating a culture of blame and discouraging employees from taking risks
  3. Information about strategy, plans, or upcoming initiatives can give competitors an advantage
  4. Some organizations need to comply with strict regulations and legal requirements (e.g. finance), in which case excessive transparency leads to non-compliance or legal issues
  5. Disclosing negative or uncertain information without appropriate context can erode investor and employee confidence
  6. Excessive transparency can result in information overload, making it difficult for employees to process and make decisions efficiently

I hope that we agree that all of these are valid, and there are probably more similar situations where transparency can lead to harm rather than good.

🌱   Transparency is also beneficial

Taking the other point of view, we can argue the following:

  1. Transparency builds trust, enhances employee engagement, and fosters a culture of psychological safety
  2. An open and transparent environment encourages healthy relationships, improves communication, and prevents employee dissatisfaction
  3. Transparent organizational goals, values, and information inspire trust, commitment, and productivity among employees
  4. Embracing transparency empowers employees to contribute innovative ideas, fosters a culture of collaboration, and enables collective problem-solving
  5. Many highly skilled workers are drawn to transparent organizations, making it easier to attract top talent
  6. Maintaining transparency holds organizations accountable, enhances public trust, and increases consumer willingness to pay a premium

I hope that we can agree on the validity of these statements, as well as acknowledge that there are numerous additional benefits that could be included.

🙋‍♂️   So… is Transparency a Buzzword?

As much as I dislike the current state of affairs, it is evident that the term “transparency” has become overused, misused, and abused. Paradoxically, it is also frequently underutilized… all of which, combined, has turned it into a buzzword. So, Yes.

I think that this situation is an unfortunate consequence of intense marketing efforts coming from various big corporations, in an attempt to convince the wider audience of a certain brand image they’d like to stand behind. This is not a protest note against corporations – it would be quite ironic to write that – but instead an attempt to understand how we got to this state and what can be done to improve it.

Recommendations related to this section:

Pros and Cons

A different view of Transparency

As highlighted by Simon in the recommended material mentioned above, it seems that there is a scarcity of organizations that truly grasp what transparency means (or should mean). Instead, due to its buzzword status, most organizations tend to adopt one of two extreme positions on the transparency scale: oversharing vs. not sharing at all.

📚   Let’s meet in the middle

My argument is that we need to adopt a different attitude towards transparency in our organizations. Transparency shouldn’t be limited to either extreme. It’s not about sharing every single detail with everyone. It’s about providing the necessary context to enable good decision-making — before, during, and after.

We can’t expect to be experts in everything, which means we often don’t fully understand the work and output of others. For example, I struggle to understand the financial income documents shared with me each month. If I tried to interpret them without proper knowledge, I could end up misinterpreting the information and causing unnecessary concern for the hard-working people in the finance department.

People have a natural inclination towards positive news, obviously. But surprisingly, people are capable of handling bad news too! However, when transparency is lacking, individuals are often left in a gray area between the two, where creativity flourishes, giving rise to unfounded fears, concerns, and dangerous decision-making.

Therefore, the main argument here is to allow people to choose whether they want to receive context around the decisions being made. Those who are uninterested can opt out, while those who value being informed will appreciate the opportunity to stay in the loop and make more informed decisions themselves. This is how a self-correcting culture is created.

🤨   Some different opinions

Yes, I argue with myself and seek out others who disagree. So what…

Anyway, to counter this, you may say that transparency is not about the content or context of information, but rather about accessibility of context. Manipulation of content and context can shape narratives – for example, greenwashing – a simple marketing strategy that involves misleading the public by exaggerating an organization’s “green” activities while hiding environmentally destructive practices.

It looks like it’s a different perspective, but I do agree with this. The idea of allowing individuals to opt-in for transparent decision-making and emphasizing accountability aligns well with my point of view. Transparency is indeed a catalyst for accountability, change, and social progress. It is crucial for influential individuals to take the lead in claiming and fostering transparency.

I would just add that, unfortunately, this lack of accessibility-oriented transparency extends to both public and private sector activities, where secrecy often outweighs the importance of human lives and the well-being of our planet. Privacy, confidentiality, and the notion of “security” are given priority at any cost, even if it comes at the expense of our environment and social lives. Again, we need to meet somewhere in the middle, even though I personally like Buffer’s approach.

🔸   A thought experiment

This thought experiment aims to highlight intriguing questions that arise from our decision-making processes. Imagine yourself as the leader of a fictional organization, and consider the following chart.

Transparency Decision Chart Hint: one end result is toxic and the other one is workplace safety

Questions that arise from here, put in the perspective of one of your direct reports:

  1. If you’re not willing to support my learning and growth, why would I choose to stay?
  2. If you conceal risky or unclear decisions, how can I ever feel secure under your leadership?
  3. If you’re unwilling to take risks and acknowledge the possibility of being wrong, how can you break free from your own echo chamber?
  4. If you’re not open to challenging and discarding your own ideas, are you… a super-intelligent alien from the future?
  5. If you prioritize arbitrary hierarchies, do you aspire to adhere to the Peter principle by replacing your own leader?
  6. Can you distinguish between a transparent, psychologically safe workplace and a toxic one? What are the three key differences?

Given my obvious inclination, I’ll leave it to you to draw conclusions from this thought experiment.

Thought Experiment

Closing thoughts

🕯️   Story time

Let me tell you a possibly fictional story about a corporate manager who attended a conference and felt genuinely valued.

This manager represented his company at the conference and was treated as an important guest. The conference organizers arranged a hotel for him, provided a car with a driver to take him to the venue, and organized a delightful lunch with the event organizers. He even received a personalized cup with his name on it. The warm greetings and immense respect from everyone made him feel truly great.

The following year, he made a career move and started working remotely for a smaller startup. Excited to attend the same conference again, he looked forward to a similar experience. However, to his surprise, nobody seemed to remember him. There was no car, no hotel booking, and no personalized cup… instead, he was handed a regular plastic cup, just like everyone else. It was at that moment he realized that the people he interacted with previously only valued his business engagement at the time, and his importance was only tied to his business title.

This story sheds light on how easily people can mistake business influence, authority, and hierarchy for personal value. It’s a phenomenon that occurs more frequently than one might think. Respect and authority do not magically appear simply because of a given title. These values must be earned, whether you hold a lower position in the hierarchy or sit at the top.

Otherwise, you rule with an iron fist, at the risk of creating a culture of fear within your group. In this toxic environment, individuals are constantly on guard – mistrusting one another, holding knives against each other’s backs, and focusing only on survival.

🔺   The top seat is the least stable one

Keep the story I just shared in mind as we conclude. As an organizational leader, you may occupy the top position, but it’s important to remember that it is within your specific hierarchy and organization. Your position is not guaranteed and is subject to performance. You are sitting on a shaky chair, constantly facing strong winds that threaten to bring you down.

I think it is crucial to establish a solid foundation under that chair. You are responsible for:

  • Formulating the right strategy
  • Ensuring appropriate levels of transparency
  • Establishing the foundational pillars of your organizational culture
  • Cultivating a culture of self-correction within that organization

There are many ways to deliver work with those responsibilities in mind. However, there is only one way to do that sustainably – and that’s with the support of all the people in your reporting line. They need to be your partners and not minions… unless you are comfortable with leading through fear, while they love blindly executing directions. I am not, either.