What does transparency mean in the context of growing a company culture? A high degree of transparency means that how the company operates is visible to all employees and in some cases to customers and stakeholders. Transparency means that not only can people see our results, but how they were achieved. They can “see through” the surface to understand what is going on underneath. If we are transparent, our stakeholders know not only what we are doing, but how we are doing it.
If, as individuals, we want to be transparent in our dealings with others, we help them see not only our actions, but also our motivations. If I am the head of a start-up company, for example, and I tell my employees that I have prioritized revenue growth because I want to cash out when we hit a million dollars, I am being transparent.
Transparency is not to be confused with democracy or consensus. When the Queen of Hearts says to Alice for all to see, “Off with her head.” – the Queen is being transparent but obviously not democratic. You can be transparent by being public in your pronouncements, but that doesn’t mean you are listening to other people’s ideas and incorporating them into a decision-making process.
Sometimes transparency is confused with consensus since consensus often involves a lot of open exchange of opinions and information among interested parties in the decision. However, consensus all too often is based on the tendency of those who agree with a proposal to wear down those who object and the tendency of those who object to acquiesce in the moment, but undermine the decision later. Consensus, in fact, sometimes hides people’s motivations and differences by creating the semblance of agreement while the actual decisions are taken in the “backroom.”
First and foremost, transparency sets the stage for people to contribute to (maybe even challenge) decisions and more importantly to influence “how” decisions are made in the future. Hence the original purpose of published meeting agendas and meeting minutes was not only to make the process more efficient but also more transparent. So placing a high value on transparency is powerful because it creates opportunities to question the process and tends to make relevant information more visible to people who have a stake in those decisions.
Second, to the extent that transparency makes critical information like performance metrics more broadly available, it can also improve feedback loops and accelerate learning. If employees who work directly with customers know that revenue is down from repeat customers compared to the past quarter, they can do further analysis to figure out possible explanations, come up with strategies to address the problem, test them, and learn from the results. Transparency makes that possible.
Third, individual transparency helps others understand your motivations and can contribute to building trust, better matches between employees and tasks, and better team performance. If you know that I am motivated by opportunities to solve complex problems of human interaction and my colleague is motivated by opportunities to analyze large datasets to find repeating patterns, you will be much more likely to know how best to incorporate our differing skills in your team effort. Our transparency makes that possible.
Transparency is therefore a great place to start to grow a strong and effective company culture, but it’s only the start. Who among us has not felt at one time or another that we are working in a surreal world like Alice’s “wonderland.” Just because we can see beneath the surface doesn’t mean we are going to like what we see, but it is almost always better than being completely in the dark.