Seek Openness – Not Transparency
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Transparency is a cardinal value of traditional management culture. Yet, transparency is distinct from the social interaction concept of openness.
All too often, transparency and openness have very different impacts on the human beings running organizations.
Transparency could be thought of as a feature of a machine that provides unfiltered visibility into its inner workings. A “well-oiled machine” designed with transparency might display its efficient productivity to all employees, leaders, and customers. Is this the path to productivity, quality, safety, and innovation?
Humans in organizations are not elements, nodes, or “cogs” with their output rates measured as transactions along value chains. If this is what we seek when “we value transparency,” we should not be surprised when communication does not increase, productivity remains flat, and attrition rates increase.
What if a talented engineer leaving for another company told you in an exit interview that she felt that transparency worked against her, controlling her, rather than empowering her? Would you still value transparency in the same way?
In starkest terms, transparency can be experienced as a weapon (of mass control) as much as it is a tool (of mass communication). How we frame “transparency” in our assumptions and values impacts how employees perceive it—and, all too often, the impact is that it reduces trust.
In our work, we have found companies can improve their success and grow by focusing on building trust between people in relational systems. If transparency is a visual attribute of a physical system, trust is a collective, interpersonal dimension of a relational system.
Trust is built through mutual openness instead of transparency.
We prefer to think of organizations as human systems in 2018. Leaders in these organizations succeed and grow through improving their connectedness (personal “Level 2” relationships), rather than by increasing transactional throughput in “well-oiled machines.”
By emphasizing trust, we emphasize the mutuality of work relationships. This is why we have chosen to emphasize “openness,” which is what two work colleagues who trust each other can leverage to optimize the information flow required to make decisions.
If transparency is a throughput attribute of a machine, openness is a shared process of a group that filters and features information that others need to produce and improve results.
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About the authors:
Edgar H. Schein is Professor Emeritus from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. He’s a pioneer in organizational studies, organizational culture and leadership, process consulting, career development. Ed’s contributions to the practice of O.D. date back to the early 1960s and continue with the recent publication of Organizational Culture and Leadership 5th edition and now Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, co-authored with Peter A. Schein, co-founder of OCLI.org who brings 30 years of hands-on experience in large and small companies leading growth initiatives in Silicon Valley.