In contemporary tech-driven, dynamic markets, jobs have become even more complex and agile. Agility requires collective intelligence, that is people working together in innovative -sometimes disruptive- ways. Indeed, firms’ revenue and sustained competitive advantage are now realized through teamwork, not ‘lone wolfs’. What is more, organizational success is achieved not through any type of work groups but rather through what are considered High Performance teams. In our present line of research, we have accumulated the most important traits found in High Performance teams, thus providing a guideline for leaders and practitioners (see previous post on High Performance Teams). One such variable is team Transparency. Research shows that when a culture of transparency is set within a team, the result is increased productivity, easier implementation of diversity initiatives (another cultural team trait, see previous post on team Diversity) and increased trust among teammates.
Alas, regardless of it being a buzzword today, a lot of companies frequently fail to apply transparency across their people, their departments and activities. This is mainly because they try without really grasping the nature of transparency. Open workspaces, weekly staff meetings, and detailed reports are just logistics, they do not translate into ‘real’ transparency. Why? Because transparency is fundamentally a matter of culture. As such, in order for it to be successfully implemented, transparency needs two very important ‘vehicles’: a company/team culture centered on the fine balance between openness and privacy and great technology to support that culture.
Definition and Benefits
Transparency is a concept that has been revisited the last 25 years by scholars and researchers, who expanded its definition to include ‘openness’, ‘accountability’, ‘truth’, ‘openly shared and timely shared information’ (e.g. Schnackenberg & Tomlinson, 2016). Transferring this premise into the ecosystem of work groups, a team who is transparent is a team who has all its resources: information, materials, feedback etc. flow freely and openly between teammates. Everyone knows what everyone else’s role, tasks, outcomes and overall contribution is towards the project at hand. Let’s attempt a closer look into only some of the benefits of transparency for teams and team leaders.
Transparency facilitates person-task fit.
A transparent team is a team, in which everybody knows who is responsible for what. This type of freedom allows for the manager to assign tasks and responsibility to the right people each time, that is those with the most appropriate skills, mindset and expertise. This practice is the so-called person-job fit (Edwards, 1991) which when carried out effectively yields incremental production results that transcend the boundaries of a single team!
Transparent teams are happier teams
Following up on the previous point, it is apparent that openly shared information on who does what and how one is doing generates a lot of beneficial intrapersonal states; a sense of control over one’s job, a sense of safety towards potential project related changes and turbulences as well as greater trust towards teammates (Palanski, Kahai & Yammarino, 2011). In turn, all these factors, make employees much more satisfied and motivated to contribute to their job, team and firm.
Transparency prevents failures and misses
One important aspect of transparency is -as mentioned earlier- open communication. People feel safe to be vocal about their mistakes, their disagreements or their concerns. Everyone shares. What is more so, transparent teams have leaders who actively encourage open discussion -vertical and horizontal- so that contributions are observable, people avoid ‘free-riding’ (Mohnen, Pokorny & Sliwka, 2008) and neglected mistakes do not pile up resulting eventually in missed deadlines or the collapse of the project.
Transparency fosters innovation
There is an interesting connection reported between transparency and innovation in teams. Innovation is fundamentally novel, useful and creative ideas being implemented (e.g. Heunks, 1998). It seems that when transparency is present within a team in the sense that everyone knows all the project details and feels safe to share ideas, it gets easier for unexpected insights and out-of-the box thinking to emerge. In transparent environments people feel free to experiment.
A double-edged sword
At this point an observant reader might ask ‘ but just how much information should be shared? how much is too much?’. These concerns are valid. As Bernstein (2017) noted in his paper ‘Make transparency transparent’, more transparent environments are not always better for performance. In fact, extreme transparency might generate quite the opposite results (Bag & Pepito, 2011). For instance, in an experimental study carried out within a large Chinese firm, researchers observed the behaviors of production line teams (Bernstein, 2012) and reported that increased transparency triggered hiding behaviors; many kept what they’re doing under wraps, even if they displayed great ingenuity and resourcefulness that could benefit the unit. These hiding responses were manifested because they buffered the employees’ bitter feeling of overexposure and vulnerability. So where does this insight leaves us? There is a sweet spot between privacy and transparency, and in order for the latter to work at its full potential the former needs to be present as well, within a team.
As Carolyn Ball (2009) puts it, transparency can be viewed as a continuum with extreme openness on one end and opaqueness on the other. On this note, the algorithm of the interplay between transparency/privacy can be described as such. Transparency allows for an accurate, clear picture of what others are doing, which enhances learning and control over the projects and the process (for teammates and the leader as well). Learning and control are prerequisites of the previously listed benefits. However, learning and control can only be effectively reached if awareness of being watched does not feel threatening or restricting (in other words if a certain privacy threshold is not exceeded), such that creates hiding behaviors.
How to strike that fine balance?
It has been observed (Bernstein, 2014) that across a variety of industries, firms that used certain types of tactics to provide some sense of privacy within already transparent, open environments, won the game. That is, they consistently got the best out of their employees, in terms of production volume, innovative ideas, faster results. This picture reveals that when building transparent High performance teams, the responsibility falls mainly on the shoulders of the teams’ leaders. They are the ones, to stir the ship towards the right direction.
Tactic 1: Transparency inside the team but privacy between teams!
Open platforms, wearable performance tracking devices, open workspaces and other tools that provide transparency at work, create a pressing sense of being constantly ‘in the spotlight’. As such, people may actively cater more towards managing impressions and reputations; the infamous ‘being a good actor versus a good soldier’ phenomenon (Donia, Johns & Raja, 2016). This response is put forth to alleviate the anxiety of being judged and observed.
Taking this observation into account, careful research has revealed that when teams were given even a minimal zone of privacy, a team boundary -equally physical or psychological- that concealed them from the sight of the other working units e.g. a mere curtain, communication continued to flow naturally within the team while innovation and productivity increased. The latter are achieved due to the fact that with a single clear boundary the pressure of being watched, or compared to others is relieved by keeping the audience small.
Examples of this tactic at play, can be traced in firms like WholeFoods and Google. At WholeFoods, employee teams at the store level –with few core ‘universal’ guidelines- have the authority to manage their own social media accounts and enjoy the liberty of experimenting with new ways of doing things. Practices that gain traction may be then communicated and spread across fellow store teams.
In a similar fashion, Google provides to all its engineers, a protected 20% time zone to be devoted on personal interests. Engineers can invest 20% of their working time on projects of personal interest and incubate ideas alongside co-workers, with whom they form self-organized working teams. No one tracks how, when and where engineers choose to spend this time. Still, they are held openly accountable towards others within these self-organized teams. This method has given birth to more than half of Google’s product portfolio (Gmail, Google News, Google Transit, Google Now etc.).
Tactic 2: Performance feedback over performance evaluation
In continuation to our previous point, any type of open information on real-time performance tends to make people uneasy, since they equate real-time feedback to formal performance appraisals. In response, they might engage once again in managing impressions. The prescription this time around, is for leaders to utilize tools that separate data-informed feedback from the evaluation process. Instant feedback technology, social media platforms that allow teammates/employees to provide and receive anonymous feedback are some intuitive tools that help lower people’s fears and defenses and put the focus on productivity and problem solving. VR technology especially when used in trainings has been shown to enhance knowledge retention (Radianti et al, 2020; Rogers, 2019) through –among other- its capacity to provide real-time feedback to users and trainers alike. Users get valuable insights into how they are doing and how they are learning, so that they can in privacy self-monitor their training journey. In parallel, trainers are encouraged to focus away from evaluation and in personalizing their coaching interventions (Farley, Spencer, & Baudinet, 2019) according to the received real-time insights on what their trainees need.
Another example of technology used in support of the present ‘how to balance transparency/privacy’ tactic is a DriveCam system used by a U.S. trucking company. The camera installed in each truck informs the driver, by switching between a green and a red light about how safe their driving behavior is during their shifts. This way, employees are free to self- monitor their day-to-day actions without having every little mishap exposed to their managers.
Key takeaway: ‘Work beyond the logistics ’
Transparency as a key factor of any High performnce team, should be tackled strategically. As a manager, go beyond the ‘logistics’ and focus on choosing tactics -and the appropriate technology to support you- that address effective transparency as a balance between openness and privacy.
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Ball, C. (2009). What is transparency?. Public Integrity, 11(4), 293-308.
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Rogers, S. (2019). Virtual Reality: The Learning Aid Of The 21st Century. Forbes.
Schnackenberg, A. K., & Tomlinson, E. C. (2016). Organizational transparency: A new perspective on managing trust in organization-stakeholder relationships. Journal of Management, 42(7), 1784-1810.