How Much Transparency Is Too Much?

Transparency within an organization is good for productivity and morale. Taken too far, though, it becomes surveillance and starts to have adverse effects.
Headshot of author Edward Hearn
Edward Hearn
Expert Columnist
December 8, 2020
Updated: January 28, 2021
Headshot of author Edward Hearn
Edward Hearn
Expert Columnist
December 8, 2020
Updated: January 28, 2021

According to the philosopher Moshe Halbertal, an individual’s sense of self requires the ability to either expose or conceal elements of her interior life. Halbertal goes further to state that the individual may also create or not create varying degrees and types of intimate relations with other individuals according to what and how much she chooses to expose and/or conceal of herself from others. In essence, Halbertal’s thesis is that if the entirety of a person’s thoughts were completely transparent, say, by scrolling across her forehead in text, then the distinction between self and other vanishes because both parties know the exact same information, erasing distinctions between interior and exterior. The ability to conceal certain information disappears and, with it, the entire possibility of individuation.

The idea of transparency, as last month’s column explored, can be a boon for aligning research incentives, snuffing out poorly designed studies and ultimately creating a fertile ground for the enlightened, human exchange of ideas. Transparency is not without its downsides, however. Halbertal’s principle of self-construction through the strategic revelation of one’s interior mental life illustrates that access to information on human thoughts and behaviors does not come without costs. For Halbertal, those costs entail the breakdown of the individual self. But, more broadly, if entire thought processes behind how organizations make decisions were public knowledge to all, it could potentially lead to institutional paralysis and breakdowns in trust within organizations.

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Transparency in Politics: A Double-Edged Sword

One example of how either too much or the wrong kind of transparency can lead to perverse outcomes comes from the political realm. Effective government in democratic societies involves two oft competing incentives: successfully campaigning to win office on the basis of grand promises and officeholders’ ability to compromise to achieve meaningful legislative goals. At times, these come into conflict, requiring trade-offs. Politicians must compromise their stated campaign platforms in order to achieve wider political objectives. As Otto von Bismark once quipped, Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” When making difficult compromises, it behooves all parties to have them occur in committee, behind closed doors. Not doing so runs the risk of having compromising parties labeled as “traitors” or “sellouts.” The consequences of this may seem frivolous, but they could be dire. In the future, individuals who are excoriated by constituents are likely to avoid making concessions to enact meaningful policy, regardless of the success or failure of the policy itself.

The constant monitoring of workaday politics with digital technology compounds the problem and can make it doubly difficult for elected officials to enact meaningful political change. This is because, rather than engaging in beneficial and frank discussions of a given legislative outcome’s pros and cons, the political costs of allegedly “betraying the party” cause political actors to posture and sloganeer in order to retain favor with their electorates. As former Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle wrote in his forward to the book City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy, “the idea that Washington would work better if there were TV cameras monitoring every conversation gets it exactly wrong ... the lack of opportunities for honest dialogue and creative give-and-take lies at the root of today’s dysfunction.” Even the Constitutional Congress of 1787 operated under a policy of conversational anonymity because, as James Madison wrote, “no Constitution ever would have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public.” Madison went on to state that “Had the members committed themselves publicly at first, they would have afterwards supposed consistency required them to maintain their ground ... whereas by secret discussion no man felt himself obliged to retain his opinions any longer than he was satisfied of their propriety and truth, and was open to the force of argument.” Humans have known for hundreds of years that transparency in public policymaking can cause problems by encouraging hyperpartisanship.

 

Transparency, Not Surveillance

Transparency not only has costs in the political world but also in the corporate workforce. Both political and corporate decision-making can, like science, operate well when many ideas, including bad or half-baked ones, are seriously debated and can be aired without approbation for entering them into the discourse. But the costs of exposing the entire process of deliberation, along with all of its messiness, to scrutiny are much different in politics and industry than in science. Scientists and researchers frequently debate complex topics with other highly trained specialists within their own fields. These debates have little impact on individuals’ daily lives, however.

Conversely, political and business decisions are frequently debated in a much more adversarial climate (especially in election years) and can potentially affect large groups of people immediately in a multitude of ways. Scientists do not have to consider how the impact of their ideas affects individuals because science’s end goal is the disinterested acquisition of knowledge about the universe. It makes sense for science to be totally transparent at all stages because the process sets objective truth as its target. Total transparency is required, then, because science’s process for uncovering natural facts is correctable. Business and political decisions, on the other hand, are debated with a different end in mind. There is no objective truth to be discovered. There is only a utilitarian calculus that aims to produce outcomes that are relatively superior to alternatives. In this way, policy decisions for large organizational entities are irreplicable and totally context-dependent. The last thing, then, that effective problem-solving at this scale needs is the insistence on transparency at all levels of the decision-making process. Opening up every facet of this process to scrutiny could lead to problems ranging from innocent misconstruals about intentions to outright false attributions of malevolence.

Experiments with monitoring the corporate workforce to achieve greater intra-company transparency, which is typically coupled with accountability arguments, frequently fail or backfire. For many workers, the idea that corporate is always watching can change working behaviors and lead to fears around bringing forward new ideas or creative yet untested improvements to work processes. Thus, creative thinking, whose lifeblood is ill-conceived, half-baked or even outright silly ideas, can ironically be stifled by measures that seek to promote a wisdom-of-crowds effect through transparency. If workers perceive that exposure of their actions or words to company-wide scrutiny has a retributive element, then it benefits them to self-censor or to not engage with others in frank and open discussion about what ideas work best to further business objectives. Water cooler chatter changes fundamentally when it’s being monitored, as does the informational quality of worker feedback and performance-rating scales.

Also, making business processes transparent requires a great deal of resources. For instance, if everyone is required to document and share everything with the entire organization, the act of doing so will consume a huge amount of otherwise productive time during workers’ days. Couple this with having too many semi-interested parties across an enterprise who must be updated regardless of relevance to their own area and the result is a corporate culture that is so bogged down with meetings, breakout groups and scrums that no meaningful work occurs. Worse is the threat that increasing documentation to bolster transparency can lead to a blaming culture. This culture arises because it’s easier to see who is at fault for what mistakes. Attributing blame becomes easy in this type of environment, but often the more pertinent and non-documentable questions concern why workers made the mistakes they did. Again, ill-thought-out transparency leads to a duck-and-cover mentality among workers. It squelches their ability to draw on expertise and creatively engage with each other to solve problems free of the fear that mistakes or wrong choices, made in good faith, will cost them career-wise.

 

The Path Forward

The good news is that a host of potential solutions exist that can minimize the downsides of transparency for both government and industry. The first is to decouple transparency from retribution and use it to focus on more important organizational problems. A good way to achieve this is by clearly defining a boundary around what measures go into a performance review and what measures are going to be solely used for process improvement. For instance, a trucking company installed continuously monitoring cameras on truckerswindshields that capture both inside the trucker’s cab and the street outside. The cameras don’t record except in the event of a “G-force” event caused by any severe, erratic driving. The cameras also only record about 12 seconds of footage, which is then sent to a review committee. This committee does not report its findings to management unless there has been any damage or illegal activity. Instead, the committee focuses on feedback for truckers so that they can learn best practices for safe conveyance without having to worry about career damage stemming from management watching and penalizing every mistake they make.

Another potential solution concerns focusing on different types of transparency. This idea was first put forward by Cass Sunstein in his paper Output Transparency vs. Input Transparency.” Sunstein delineated two types of transparency with respect to the public monitoring of government processes. The first type, output transparency, deals with regulations, rules, data gathering procedures and policies. This type of transparency, according to Sunstein, leads to positive outcomes for public and private institutions (and individuals therein) because these outputs are useful in the realm of everyday existence. Transparency around, for example, how the Bureau of Labor Statistics samples workers to collect information on nationwide unemployment is a good example of this. The sampling process is clearly documented for scrutiny by interested parties to achieve an end of making the information, as well as its drawbacks, useful to individuals who seek to understand unemployment, the job market and the labor force. On the other hand, input transparency describes what happens when an organization makes all the intermediate steps of a decision-making process transparent. Usually, this devolves into a whole lot of chatter about who said what, why she said it and who she said it to, which doesn’t imbue interested parties with any informational benefit. The costs of this type of transparency, in terms of loss of trust in individuals or institutions and self-censorship, can be high. Continuing the previous example, openly documenting who decided not to include prison populations or members of the military, who both work but are not counted in the unemployment rate, as well as any debate that led to this decision, could result in the named individuals facing charges of incompetence or neglect of vulnerable populations by adversarial interests seeking to alter unemployment rate calculations.

The last solution is to never forget the Hawthorne effect, which suggests that people may change their behavior if they know they’re being watched. In this way, observed actions or speech neither generalize to the rest of the (unobserved) workforce nor indicate what true practices workers utilize to achieve meaningful organizational goals. For instance, hand-washing compliance in healthcare settings is crucial to ensure safe patient outcomes and to prevent nosocomial infection. When healthcare facilities monitor how often healthcare practitioners wash their hands while on the job, however, the number of times workers handwash is inflated due to workers knowing that they are being watched. Compliance looks much more assured than it otherwise would be. Because the very act of watching changed the behavior of healthcare workers, healthcare facilities might deem that their workforces are fully compliant with good hygiene practice and expend resources elsewhere. Thus, rather than focusing on different, more effective methods of enforcement, such as those put forward by the Leapfrog Group, organizational dedication to transparency backfires when it causes changes to worker behaviors that do not reflect the ways in which the non-observed labor force carries out work.

Transparency can be a crucial tool to ensure collective trust by workforces or polities in legislative or business processes, but it is not a panacea and it can backfire. Ignoring the potential downsides of transparency can imperil organizations just as much as having no scrutiny at all.

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