There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

The Golden Rule of Transparency

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Like world peace, virtually every leader I have ever dealt with espouses the virtues of transparency, yet very few actually deliver on the promise within their organization. If it’s something everyone says they want, then why isn’t organizational transparency easier to attain? In truth, like most things of worth, creating a culture of transparency takes a lot of effort, and often means overcoming some of the bad lessons leaders tend to pick up as their careers progress.

The very traits that help someone be successful as an individual contributor, or even the leader of a small team, can work against the leader who wants to encourage a larger culture of transparency. I have come to believe in what I call the Golden Rule of Transparency as a tool that can help even the most stubborn leaders and organizations overcome their bad habits and allow true transparency to flourish. So what is this Golden Rule of Transparency?

The Golden Rule of Transparency: Reward the act of communication, not the content of the communication.

Organizations that are transparent follow the golden rule. Those that want to become more transparent can use the golden rule to re-evaluate why their current efforts at transparency are not more successful. The golden rule works because it creates a positive feedback loop where behavior that tends to improve transparency is rewarded, allowing more of that behavior to flourish. More than any other characteristic, the golden rule can be applied as a tool to improve any organizations level of transparency.

There are other traits to a transparent organization. A truly transparent culture is one where virtually every piece of information that can be shared is shared, with no concerns about why. The obligation is for the originator of information/content to make it available, and not on the requestor to demonstrate why the information should be shared. Power/influence/credibility comes not from who has access to what information, but from who can demonstrate they best utilize the information for the benefit of the business. These traits can’t be made to happen in isolation – but if you follow the golden rule these will start to manifest themselves.

Note that there are clearly classes of information a business may not wish to share (or can’t legally, like medical information), but even then many of the things some organizations consider strictly off-limits (like rank, pay, review rating, etc.) are considered by some organizations well within the bounds of what can be shared. It’s healthy to review the information considered too sensitive to share, and determine if it’s not being shared because it wasn’t in the past (which by itself is not a very good reason) or because there is a more legitimate reason. But even that some information is out of bounds of a transparency policy is itself something to be transparent about – there should be no surprises within an organization about what content the organization does not want shared.

Some of the very skills successful people learn work against their ability to lead a transparent organization, and seeing this apparent contradiction can go a long way towards helping someone learn better habits. As an individual contributor we are rewarded for asking tough questions, whether of the people or the data; being able to scrutinize information to glean the most from it is a fundamental ability a successful professional needs to learn.

When someone moves into a position of leadership of a small team, this same trait continues to pay rewards. With a small team the amount of direct contact between the team lead and the members of the team is high enough that the team can still come to believe that sharing information is important, despite the team lead always responding with tough questions. But when the team scales up and this greater level of personal exposure falls off things start going wrong…

When the ‘big boss’ is constantly asking hard questions of the data one very human response is to stop providing that stream of hard data. Even when the data is requested, there is a very human tendency to want to clean the data up. This happens even in cases when there is no attempt to deceive; if I show you data one way and you yell at me, but I show you another way and you don’t, I will quickly learn how to not get yelled at.

It’s true that there is a gap between asking hard questions of data and yelling at someone, but that gap is crossed much more rapidly than most leaders are prepared for. The close personal contact of a smaller team teaches the leader that they can manage that gap through other interactions, but as the team scales up and other oppurtunites for interaction diminish the gap gets smaller and smaller.

The golden rule tells us to separate the content from the communication (fans of Marshall McLuhan aside). By being very clear that just sharing the information is worthy of praise, the act of sharing it gets easier. Then, as a separate act, a deep dive into the data where hard questions are asked is now more clearly focused on the data itself and not the person who shared the data. By keeping the data and communication separate the gap between asking hard questions and someone feeling yelled at once again gets much wider.

If you consider the golden rule and are committed to adhering to it you will have taken an important step in helping yourself create a truly transparent organization.


Written by joshuahoward

January 27, 2010 at 9:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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