The Paradox of Transparency

A gossip goes around telling secrets,
but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence.

Proverbs 11:13

In a conversation with my wife earlier this morning we were discussing how blessed I am to work for the company I work for. I so appreciate the anonymity I’ve been given and I was relaying how I feel my productivity has skyrocketed because of it. This place of work is the polar opposite of my previous contract. Previously I worked in an open office where individuals were micromanaged and it felt like the productivity of that office was at a barely functional state. If something needed to be done quickly, that company would simply ‘throw more bodies’ on the task versus attempt to improve productivity. This only added to the confusion and frustration, dragging the productivity down further. It was a terrible cycle.

My current contract has me working wherever and whenever I choose. I have found that I naturally am excited about my work, diving into it, thinking through problems. I am probably 3x more productive in this environment and the organization actually gets more quality hours out of me because I end up working whenever I have an open chance, even outside of regular working hours.

In researching this phenomenon and trying to grasp language for what I’ve personally experienced and how it affects productivity and how management philosophies can cause a breeding ground for productivity or for lies and deceit, I came across this amazing paper/research project done by Ethan S. Bernstein (link to PDF) called: The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control. He concludes the paper by stating:

We typically assume that the more we can see, the more we can understand about an organization. This research suggests a counteracting force: the more that can be seen, the more individuals may respond strategically with hiding behavior and encryption to nullify the understanding of that which is seen. When boundaries to visibility fall, invisible boundaries to accurate understanding may replace them at a significant cost. In this research, that cost was a 10–15 percent detriment to performance.

Hence the transparency paradox: broad visibility, intended to increase transparency, can breed hiding behavior and myths of learning and control, thereby reducing transparency. Conversely, I have observed that transparency can actually increase within the boundaries of organizational modules, or what the operators called zones of privacy, when the visible component of transparency is decreased or limited between them.

This paper does not challenge the value of transparency. Instead, it challenges what, and how much, individual observers should see in order to achieve it. Because the mere presence of a manager, in line of sight of an employee, may affect employee performance in negative ways, management by walking around may sometimes be inferior to management by standing still. In this study, creating zones of privacy around line workers’ activities did not result in slacking off or cutting corners. Instead, the zones of privacy improved transparency within the line and, with it, improved productive deviance, experimentation, and focus on productive work. While hourly defect-free production results remained transparent to all via the IT system, line activities remained visible only to those who were best suited to innovate: the line operators. The establishment of a zone of privacy around the line allowed improvement rights to be owned by those on the inside, encouraged more transparency within the visibility boundaries, and ultimately enabled an increase in organizational performance.

Visual privacy is an important performance lever but remains generally unrecognized and underutilized. Paradoxically, an organization that fails to design effective zones of privacy may inadvertently undermine its capacity for transparency.

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