The Transparency Trap

I have mixed feelings about the following article by Ethan Bernstein but it’s blog-worthy nonetheless:

The Transparency Trap

Ethan’s main thesis is this: there’s a big hype around transparency in some management circles, but too much transparency can lead to counter-productive behaviors. He then outlines four boundaries/distinctions that can help strike a better balance between transparency and privacy.

Something in the way the thesis is presented really rubbed my the wrong way. I believe that transparency is a means to an end, not an end on its own. It’s a prerequisite condition to healthy, high performing organizations. But without other supporting mechanisms, it cannot drive the change that most organizations seek on its own and will often time lead to the type of counter-productive behaviors described in this article.

Ethan identifies four types of boundaries that require thoughtfulness and attention in order to  reap the benefits of transparency:

1. Boundaries around teams – limit the scope of transparency to the team but not necessarily beyond it

2. Boundaries between feedback and evaluation – limit the “uses” of transparency, it should be used for feedback but not for evaluation

3. Boundaries between decision rights and improvement rights – limit process transparency to focus around decision making ownership, but keep improvement ownership vague/everyone’s responsibility

4. Boundaries around time  – limit transparency to certain periods of time, allowing more privacy in the others

I buy into #2, but I think that #3 has hardly anything to do with transparency, and #1 and #4 are only attempting to cure specific symptoms of #2.

When transparency is used for performance evaluation, it is used as a control mechanism.  The kind of behaviors that organizations are trying to encourage with transparency can only be triggered when coupled with at least one other key component – trust.  Transparency without trust is close to worthless.


The Transparency Trap

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