Leveling Transparency

I get excited when I notice that I’ve changed my mind about something. As is the case for me here. 

Having a thoughtful career levels system (which ties to a compensation levels system) is often an important ingredient in creating both a clear roadmap for professional growth and a fair compensation structure. 

A key question in designing such a system is which of its components should be made transparent to all member of the organization. In this post, I’ve explored the spectrum of transparency around the compensation component. Today, I want to focus more on the leveling itself. 

We can envision a transparency spectrum around levels with the following milestones (multiple in-between stages can exist as well): 

  1. The member’s manager knows their level but the member doesn’t.
  2. The member and the manager know the member’s level but anyone else (outside the reporting chain, finance, and HR) doesn’t. 
  3. Everybody knows everybody else’s level. 

Google is a good example of an organization that’s on one far end of the spectrum (#3). 

About three years ago, I used to believe that a more middle-ground position (#2) made more sense, for the following reasons: 

  • Full level transparency will result in less equitable/meritocratic conversations, giving more weight to the opinions of the more senior participants, given that their seniority is known (this has been an issue at Google).
  • Full level transparency will result in counter-productive social-comparisons and encourage a more promotion-centric culture (also an issue at Google). 

While both arguments are probably true to an extent (positive correlation between cause and effect), I’ve since then changed my mind and now leaning a lot closer to #3. Here’s what my experience since then taught me: 

  • Seniority can still be inferred and/or established in many other ways. Thoughtfully managing power and its implications requires much deeper cultural work.
  • People who assess their self-worth and sense of accomplishment by social-comparison/external validation will continue to do so. Hiding levels won’t make them stop. Real investment in helping them grow out of the way they currently make sense of the world might. 
  • Creating a “knowledge imbalance” where some individuals have access to some information when others don’t, generate a trust deficit and a tax on the culture. 
  • Maintaining the “knowledge imbalance” has a real operational tax: complex permissions, data anonymization, double-checking data before sharing it broadly, etc. 

I expect my opinion to continue to evolve as I continue to learn, but it’s nice to pause and notice the change. 

Leveling Transparency

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