The Transparency Trap

Most people tend to present the best possible versions of themselves publicly on social media, and elsewhere. And most organisations try to present the best possible version of themselves through their brand and communications. However by avoiding sharing your flaws – both as a person or an organisation – you can appear unreal and unapproachable.

The more open and genuinely honest you are, the more rounded you become and ultimately more trusted as well. And consequently if you share any problems or difficulties you are facing, you can appeal to the empathy and generosity of others who generally will want to help.

Skyfall

I remember vividly, a few years ago, hearing Johnnie Moore introduce a workshop full of important people that he was facilitating, and start by saying that he was a bit nervous, and not sure what to do. I was surprised at the bravery of being so open in a situation where he was supposed to be “in charge”. However his honesty ultimately lead to the group on that day responding really well to his honesty and I too found it really refreshing and engaging, and made me want to talk and open up myself. The workshop was fantastic and a real eye-opener for me.

One of the most important transformations and legacies of the internet age is we live in a glass bowl (or prison perhaps) where everything we do or say can easily be viewed or shared instantly, whether we like it or not. So learning to be publicly vulnerable, proactively rather than reactively, can therefore be a very smart move.

Yet this transparency is counter-intuititve at the best of times for most people, let alone for most organisations. And when your business is also somebody else’s business, somebody who perhaps isn’t quite as open as you are, then it’s not necessarily that easy to be as transparent without their permission. This catch 22 situation is called the transparency trap.

A few common tactics for dealing the transparency trap are as follows:

  1. Ask forgiveness not permission
  2. Obscure the details
  3. Do and say nothing

Option 1 is the bravest but can land you in trouble if you are not careful. Option 2 is generally deeply unsatisfying for all concerned.  Option 3 is definitely the easiest option but self-defeating. We’d love to hear any other smarter tactics you may have for transcending the transparency trap.

Of course it’s not necessarily universally beneficial all of the time, and so it is often helpful to create temporary safe spaces (that we sometimes call Innovation Airlocks) to learn, to experiment, and sometimes just to be.

Transparency has the potential to encourage us all to be better people and create better organisations. It can be frustrating or even debilitating not to be able to share, especially when times get tough. Therefore learning to transcend the transparency trap is a crucial stepping stone to creating a better future together.

by Roland

Image: Glass prison from the film Skyfall

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Having just finished writing this post I googled the title ‘The Transparency Trap’ and found two other articles with the exact same name (not to surprising I guess – there is nothing new in this world) – one in the Harvard Business Review and the other in the Atlantic – and both worth reading.

Comments

  1. Permission is key. Transparency has to apply to everyone involved – so not just your readers, but also the companies you work with. I think a little preparation might be useful here: let your partner companies know your intentions ahead of time, and see if you can get their permission not for a post, but more generally. They might have conditions (for example, letting them see it first), which you might be able to live with. Or, they might reject the idea.

    In the latter case, route 2. in your post applies, but now you can be transparent about why you’re obscuring the details. Just be up-front: “we’re obscuring the details here because one of the parties involved wasn’t comfortable with us sharing them”. If possible, you could say why the partner doesn’t want details to be shared. The reader understands what’s going on, and nobody’s being cagey.

  2. Hi Ben. Thanks for your comment. Makes perfect sense and pretty much how I like to think we operate most of the time. It’s most tricky though with bad news of some kind where I tend to want to share more than ever (to get it off my chest or to ask for help) but feel I can’t share for fear of offending or damaging the reputation of somebody else.

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