Do you cringe when you hear the word, “Transparency?”

business-257880_640aI do, and I hear it all too often. We expect our government to be transparent. Managers talk of their transparency in the workplace. Workers complain of a lack of transparency in management. Public officials call for transparency in their agencies. Managers and leaders around the globe describe themselves as being completely transparent.

While the word traces back to Middle English and Medieval Latin, the connotation implied in the examples above is much newer. Ask a manager what transparency means and you’ll likely hear that it’s tied to subordinates easily seeing and understanding the basis for decisions made. Ask a worker what a transparent style implies and you’ll likely hear something like working in a manner where everyone can see most aspects of your work, whether that’s producing a tangible product, managing the work of others, or leading an organization.

The fact is, most people want transparency from others. Most people, when pressed, will declare themselves as being transparent. At the same time, most people fear being truly transparency if that means showing their work in progress.

Transparency has become a buzzword, and it means different things to different people.

That’s why I cringe.

In the leader-manager’s connotation of transparency, decision-makers must honestly answer questions about decisions, tie decisions to some clearly delineated strategy, or explain actions in an unhesitatingly direct way. In my opinion, that’s not being transparent. That’s having integrity. Just yesterday I listened to a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (referred to as the House Oversight Committee) as members grilled Julia Pierson, now-former director of the U.S. Secret Service. They called for complete transparency from the Secret Service, which Ms. Pierson promised to provide to the committee behind closed doors. The trouble is, her organization had already released (and only through whistleblowers from within) three different versions of one story of a man who had entered the White House with a knife. While the committee members were asking for transparency, they really wanted integrity, and that ship had already sailed.

The worker’s connotation of transparency is interesting because it implies a window into the world of work as it happens. Some people refer to that window as, “Learning out loud.” or, “Showing your work.” In theory, we see what others are doing, as they’re doing it, and can offer advice in a timely manner. We may also be able to build on that work to reap even greater organizational benefits. Then, applied to ourselves, we often fear that openness, afraid others will see errors, omissions, and possibly expose our flaws.

But several facts should compel more people to share their work, to be personally transparent about their work. To list only a few:

  • Sharing work as it progresses helps minimize the anxiety of sharing a product when it’s completed. As others contribute to the product through suggestions, comments, or criticism, our products improve. We also benefit from the shared support of those who helped craft the product along the way.
  • Both in organizations and as individual consultants, we work in the context of the work of many others. Sharing our work affords us an opportunity to collaborate with others, make faster progress, and possibly develop better, more comprehensive solutions. It also opens doors to building sustainable working relationships.
  • Sharing our work doesn’t mean sharing all of our work. There are strategic, tactical, and practical reasons to not share aspects of our work. Nobody would expect the Secret Service to share the details of their security plans with the public, for example. We all have many aspects of our work that need to be held closely.

As we demand transparency from our leaders, let’s recognize we’re really looking for integrity from them and should never settle for less. However, being personally transparent and sharing our work is at its core a personal learning and productivity philosophy. When we learn out loud in the conduct of our work, we and our organizations both benefit.


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