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Transparency at Your Company: Too Much of a Good Thing?

  • 4 min read

Transparency at Your Company: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Employee transparency has become a more urgent benchmark for young companies as more and more tales of shocking behavior abound in the news. Recently, 20 Uber employees were laid off after a sexual harassment investigation; if a company isn’t closely monitoring the internal practices of employees and being open about those findings, it makes you wonder what they’re hiding. But transparency can easily become too much of a good thing as it can also cultivate staff unease and wariness from being constantly surveilled.

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We work in a time when it’s never been simpler to track, well, everything. Employee work output can be monitored in a variety of ways, from laptop usage right down to a wrist wearable - all conditions that start with the best of intentions but can quickly veer into feeling like working in a surveillance state. The problem here is that increased transparency often assumes two things: an inherent innocence of behavior at all times, and maximum productivity at all times.

Let’s start with the first. When transparency becomes an organization’s primary goal, that organization is “assuming that a one-to-one, rational relationship exists between transparency and innocence. Human beings aren’t perfectly rational, and complete transparency does not entirely rule out bad behavior,” says management professor David DeCramer in the Harvard Business Review. Ideally, transparent bosses recognize that employees are not infallible.

By design, however, transparency is intended to reveal flaws in a system - which is how transparency can quickly turn into scrutiny, given a desire for maximum productivity. The consequences of too much transparency can run even deeper - it can quickly create a culture of blame, as managers have tons of data to point to, with little context. (Simply put: you know what happened, but not why.) That blame can lead to distrust amongst employees, permeating a company culture and turning it toxic quickly.

Can a sweet spot does exist between too much transparency and not enough transparency, then? DeCramer and a growing body of management psychologists think so. Cultivating the right balance doesn’t have to be a constant renegotiation; just a process where all stakeholders feel included and heard before being asked to give up some of their privacy. Below are four more ways to build a more transparent organization, and how to prevent that transparency from going unchecked.


Be Transparent About Your Transparency

When adopting a more transparent office culture, transparency itself shouldn’t be the end goal - the reason for it should be compelling, and the adoption of more transparency should be a step in achieving a greater goal. Management should set clear goals, that are well-communicated with all current and future employees, so that they can be invested in the process. By establishing clear goals, it also sets expectations for management to use that data; for example, human resources data collections should be used to improve the work experience. If data is simply being collected without being used for a specific purpose - improving the work experience, increasing sales, etc. - transparency can begin to feel like surveillance.

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Learning Is More Important Than Laying Blame

Having benchmarks for transparency, like reducing production times by 10%, are critical. But it’s important to look at increased transparency as a tool to help towards that goal, and not a solution to lay blame. DeCramer suggests emphasizing education, rather than simply results, when increasing transparency in organizations. Research published in the Psychological Bulletin shows that employees who work under increased accountability also become more fearful about how they’re seen by bosses and coworkers. By bringing the focus to education, even if a new goal isn’t met, the data collected can be used to help identify areas to improve. By rooting the goal of the new transparency initiative in learning, DeCramer says it “will ensure that transparency efforts are seen as motivated by good intentions, which in turn will promote stronger employee commitment.” 

Set Boundaries

Sociologist Erving Goffman’s work has outlined the fact that as social media and other trackable platforms spread, our personal feelings of being “on stage” increase exponentially. By setting boundaries - say, around teams, so that they can get work done without facing scrutiny from an entire organization - companies can turn off some of the pressure that can arise with radical transparency.

Setting boundaries may feel counterintuitive, but it can have far-reaching impacts. In one study, employees in a factory worked in 28 lines, in an open floor plan. Researchers put curtains up so that each line was enclosed by a curtain; teams were transparent amongst each other, but sequestered from other teams within the company.

Productivity rose almost 15%, which researchers attributed to the fact that the slightly minimized transparency allowed teams to work out solutions together, test them, and then bring them to their colleagues.


Transparency Goes Hand in Hand With Tolerance

A culture of transparency can immediately sour if it’s not paired with a culture of forgiveness. It can be difficult for employees to remember that transparency doesn’t equal scrutiny. Instead, educate managers on how to widen their perspective to observe data without acting rashly on what they perceive to be weak spots and interpret them as opportunities for growth or constructive conversation.

In addition to expanding perspectives for upper management, it fosters a culture of compassion within teams and organizations, that can lead to productive results, rather than reverting to a culture of punishment.

In many circumstances, it can be beneficial to share data and findings with employees on an individual and a mass level, to benefit from aligning on goals without passing judgement. If an end goal is to increase productivity in a department by 10%, managers should share their own progress with the employees they are also tracking. By having a common goal that spans from the bottom to the top, with the same level of transparency across the board, distrust can be replaced with a common alliance.

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