Transparent or just too open? Striking a balance in the workplace

Leaders are attracted to transparency because of its seeming promise to increase accountability, collaboration, knowledge sharing, innovation and productivity among employees. However, organizational openness also has the potential to undermine these things, according to Ethan Bernstein, PhD, JD, MBA.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Bernstein, assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, suggests this undermining is usually the result of the opinion that more transparency is better. Instead, Dr. Bernstein argues smarter transparency is better.

To achieve the balance between smart transparency and privacy, consider the following key points from Dr. Bernstein.

1. Maintain an "open door" office policy — sometimes. In terms of physical space in the workplace, removing walls and barriers by creating open offices can lead to more "random collisions" and collaboration among employees, but too much openness can also be distracting and reduce productivity.

"Organizations adopting transparent workplaces need to think even more about who should observe whom, not just leave it to chance. They need to demarcate private spaces — whether physical or virtual — where teams can work together without interruption or scrutiny from those outside the team," according to Dr. Bernstein.

2. Use monitoring information constructively. More transparency means workers — executives and staff — are held more accountable for their individual work. The use of technology, such as email and calendar servers, as well as wearable and installed devices like radio-frequency ID tags, allows employers to monitor their employees' productivity.

According to Dr. Bernstein, transparency of individuals' contributions can lead to anxiety that the information will be used against them in performance reviews, instead of openly disclosing errors for learning and development. Leaders using such information to measure and compare employees' contributions and performances should take care to distinguish between using the data to show employees ways to improve and evaluating performance.

3. Performance requires private practice. "With total transparency, everything is a performance. But in the workplace, depriving employees of private practice spaces can substantially undermine performance," according to Dr. Bernstein.

While transparency is good sometimes, it isn't effective all of the time because employees are often less productive and innovative if they know they are always being observed.

For example, according to Dr. Bernstein, when there is unrestrained openness, people tend to clam up. If you throw a large group together for an initial brainstorming session, people will be more apprehensive to contribute and begin weeding out their ideas when an individual they consider smarter or more senior starts sharing. To prevent this particular situation, begin brainstorming sessions with a period of quiet where everyone can write down as many ideas as possible, then sharing them, Dr. Bernstein suggests.

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