Transparency is good, until it isn’t good. Take this photo of a new Chemistry lab at the big university down the hill. You can see from the hallway right into the classroom. The room lets in lots of natural light. It feels free and open. Now, imagine a couple of hundred students at tables, or walking through the hall during a class change, while you, the instructor are in the middle of teaching a three hour lab. Sometimes, transparency can be distracting. Personally I would find it very uncomfortable to be teaching in a fishbowl – it’s a little too exposed and I would feel very vulnerable.
Now let’s apply the idea of transparency to leadership. With the advent of new approaches to leadership, (transformational leadership, empowerment, distributed leadership, etc.) and technological change, transparency is an essential leadership tool. When facing a crisis, when dealing with complex issues, we need to be transparent about the situation, the people and the decisions which must be made. Otherwise, followers won’t be able to share essential information, and they may distrust us.
At the same time, too much transparency may create problems – too much honesty about the direness of a situation, too much sharing about issues that are not the immediate concern of followers create problems – panic, fear, demoralization or distraction. For example, one of the main problems organizations encounter during an acquisition is the integration of the new firm. The activities of the integration, and the fears and concerns of employees can distract them from the daily work of managing the business, resulting in poor corporate performance. Leaders need to be honest and straightforward with employees, but ensure that they keep their focus on managing day to day business, not on the potential outcomes of the integration. Some transparency, but not too much.
Transparency when the leader is feeling negative, lacking confidence or otherwise communicating anxiety about a situation, can be a bad thing. At the same time, research shows that sharing some vulnerability with followers humanizes a leader, making them more approachable and likeable. Once again, balance is the key to effective leadership. As Goldilocks once said, “not too hot, not too cold, it’s just right”. If only it were so easy to find Baby Bear’s porridge.