Busting the two biggest fears about working transparently

Managers spend a lot of time taming chaos – their clever schedules, thoughtful strategy documents and clear org charts all make life at work orderly and controlled. So can you really blame bosses when they react with skepticism when some pundit or vendor tells them to give up some of that order and control in pursuit of greater transparency?

Initial fear of tools that trash information hierarchies and let information flow more freely across the organization is understandable, but that doesn’t make it correct. Two of the primary worries managers have about transparency just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Fear #1: Your company will be a ship without a rudder

Managers may worry that employees won’t know where to focus with information about so many initiatives washing over them. Command and control ensures coordinated action on limited priorities. Without strong, top-down signals about what to work on, your company will be like a ship without a rudder.

This fear may sound plausible, but it ignores the reality that in the current high-tech, fast-paced business environment, organizations that have the agility of an old Spanish galleon with a single crafty sea dog (and maybe a few trusty mates) at the helm are probably going to get sunk.

“Social tools provide a tremendous amount of freedom of movement of ideas and information,” Salesforce executive John Wookey explained earlier this year. “The workforce is more dynamic, meaning it moves across projects more quickly. The ability to quickly align around goals and what you want to get done is important.”

Letting information flow up, down and across the organization allows less biased feedback to reach decision makers, ensures that teams aren’t working at cross-purposes or duplicating work, and enables more rapid adjustments when the competitive environment changes. Operational models that are less flexible and transparent “have become increasingly stressed as companies get more global and as the market moves faster,” according to Wookey.

Transparency may explode the metaphorical rudder, but only to replace it with a more advanced system that sensitively relays feedback about the course you’re on and allows agile adjustments – more modern heat-seeking missile than slow-moving imperial warship.

Fear #2: No carrot, no stick, more slacking

Think that without managerial hectoring or the motivation of some carrot dangling at the end of a highly structured review process your employees won’t work as hard? Think again, says Walter Chen, co-founder of iDoneThis, a team performance management tool and a student of transparent companies who overcome his initial doubts about more open organizations.

“Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile had an interesting finding in her book, The Progress Principle. Ninety-five percent of managers are wrong about what motivates people at work. Most bosses think that people are most motivated by financial incentive or stress. Rather, Amabile found that the number one motivator was the sense of making progress toward a meaningful goal,” he said.

“Bosses are afraid of losing control when silos are broken down,” he says, but “it turns out that people are way more engaged. Breaking down those structures has this effect of giving access to all the layers of the onion. People are more engaged not just with their own work but their co-workers’ work, and with the overall vision, direction, and development of the company.”

Harvard Business Review Blog Network write-up of an experiment in radical transparency at research software firm Qualtrics comes to similar conclusions, but cites not just meaningful work but increased fairness as reasons for higher motivation.

“Radical transparency increases commitment and motivation to the corporate mission because employee data are explicitly linked to performance, ensuring high levels of fairness. A sense of real fairness turns out to be deeply rewarding to the brain. Everyone is benchmarked, all data are available for inspection and analysis, and all employees are treated accordingly,” writes Ryan Smith and Golnaz Tabibnia.

Or to put it simply, when genuine high performers are clearly visible due to increased transparency, the incentives to be a genuine high performer (rather than an office politics expert) go up.

Post by Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a semi-nomadic freelance writer (current location: sunny Nicosia, Cyprus) with interests in entrepreneurship, remote collaboration, unconventional career paths and generational differences.