ArticlesFebruary 1, 2016

The murky world of transparency

Note: This is the first in a three-part series on improving transparency.

Access to the workplace budget can make people feel in the know or out of the loop. However, depending on the situation, those classifications may not apply. For example, I used to send my proposed budget to stakeholders to make sure my assumptions about the coming year were consistent with their actual needs. Transparency with my budget built trust with stakeholders and generated feedback to improve the program. Yet, some peers were horrified because they believed holding information was power.

Transparency is often only thought of as a way to prove no wrongdoing is happening, which is a lost opportunity. Below is a discussion of what transparency is and when it is worth the trouble to build it into processes. The remainder of the series will discuss how to plan for transparency and how to communicate effectively so it works for you rather than against your intentions.

Transparency doesn’t just mean honesty or a lack of corruption. Transparency is a strategy for building trust between an organization and its stakeholders by forfeiting secrecy in exchange for proactive self-accountability and timely and appropriate communications. You are not transparent because you operate by the books and hold yourself to high standards of quality and ethics. You are transparent because:

You’ve designed your processes to communicate accurate and in-context information to the right people at the right time.

Understand that being transparent about why and how you do things isn’t always appropriate or beneficial, so you rely on criteria to determine when transparency is required, recommended, unnecessary, or inappropriate.

Execute transparency effectively so it builds trust, upgrades decisions affects culture and reduces workloads.


When an organization does a good job with transparency, you don’t even notice because your experience feels natural and seamless. When an organization does a terrible job, it makes things harder for the people it serves and is served by. A lack of transparency is most noticeable when customers are stuck in the customer service merry-go-round (e.g., cable, healthcare, etc.) or when something about a company seems contradictory or counter-intuitive (e.g., employer, volunteer board, charity, etc.).

Designing systems for transparency saves your work in the long term. Period. Here are three examples of how transparency can be an effective strategy to build trust and reduce workload. As these examples demonstrate, it isn’t just about being accountable for one’s behavior but also about when/how you communicate.

A few examples

Designing systems for transparency saves your work in the long term. Period. Here are three examples of how transparency can be an effective strategy to build trust and reduce workload. As these examples demonstrate, it isn’t just about being accountable for one’s behavior but also about when/how you communicate.

Example Not Transparent Transparent
The airplane can’t take off until a minor mechanical issue is resolved, causing a long delay. The airline staff keeps extending the delay every 30 minutes but never articulates the cause or attempts to set expectations for passengers. Passengers who miss their connection are rebooked upon arrival at their destination, which causes further delays. The airline was honest from the start about the delay and provided real-time updates. While waiting, they rebooked passengers who would miss their connection so they didn’t experience additional delays.
Employee salaries have been a well-kept secret, but rumors are spreading internally. Leadership believes no one would understand the complexity of what to pay everyone and communicate that as such. However, some employees think there are severe disparities and keep the topic on everyone’s minds, which increases the turnover rate. Leadership determines that this is a good time to formalize the process of classifying jobs and salary ranges. Because the method provides an opportunity for participation and transparent communications, most staff are on board with the changes even if they do not benefit them directly.
A software company is recruiting for multiple positions using an online system, but the system works slowly and takes applicants a long time to complete. Some applicants don’t complete the process because of the system and cannot talk to anyone in HR about it. When they finally submit, they are told on the screen, ‘Don’t call us; we’ll call you.’ They still receive many calls daily when applicants feel like they are in the HR black hole, and they are having a hard time filling those positions. Human Resources has the system altered to improve candidate expectations before they begin. They can now also log in to see where they are in the hiring process, significantly reducing calls to HR.

When to strive for transparency

Remember when your parents used to say, “Because I told you so,” and you swore you would never give such a vague response to your own children? Now that you’re a parent, you get why they said that (and say it yourself sometimes). We say this to our children because they don’t need the backstory, and it is not up for negotiation. Sometimes, this also applies to grownups. In its simplest form, you should be transparent when others are entitled to the backstory or have access to the decision-making process. Being transparent does take resources and can have consequences if you don’t implement it correctly. So, if any of the criteria below are met, it is likely appropriate and advantageous to build transparency into the process:

  • Show that there is no corruption or conflict of interest
  • Take public responsibility for decisions and subsequent actions
  • Demonstrate that decisions are made based on evidence and thought-out processes
  • Reduce stakeholder’s anxiety about how they are impacted by a situation
  • Prevent negative impact on organizational culture by withholding information
  • Significantly reduce the workload of troubleshooting a lack of transparency
  • Potential benefits for transparency exceed the commitment needed to achieve

Transparency and collaboration are very important in common: they are both a strategy for better results. The key to productivity in both is planning. Next article in the series: Planning on Transparency