The importance of transparency in collaboration

Clear and muddy water in two glassesTransparency is something we want from our collaborators, know has value, but often lag about providing ourselves.

Don’t you generally like to know what’s going on in your work collaborations? I know my students do. In experiential exercises we do as part of class, term after term, my working professional MBA students (they come to class straight from their real-world jobs) demonstrate that they want transparency from their collaborators. Students who are initially left out of planning sessions can become disengaged, and even confrontative. And they are less interested in participating even if eventually invited in. These experienced professionals report that they would prefer to have the news on the table, even when it’s bad, where they can better manage it and prepare for the ramifications.

On the other hand, those students playing roles in experiential exercises where they can withhold information, often do so. When asked why they weren’t transparent with their collaborators, they generally offer one of these reasons:

  • It would take too much time to involve the others
  • They plan to involve the worker team … once they (in the role of the management team) have planned what work needs to be done
  • It would be uncomfortable to share, so tacitly acting on the information is better than being explicit

This kind of thinking is usually counter-productive. Strategist Nilofer Merchant writes in her book, The New How:

Everyone is better off when they know why decisions are made with as much accuracy as possible. It gives them an understanding of what matters and provides information on which to base the trade-offs constantly being made at every level. It also boosts buy-in and energy from the organization. When reasons behind decisions are not shared, the decisions can seem arbitrary and possibly self-serving. That is, they may seem like they are made for the good of the decision makers, rather than the good of the organization.

Warren Bennis, business professor and co-author of Transparency: Creating a Culture of Candor, offers evidence that transparency supports financial success: “Again and again, studies show that companies that rate high in transparency tend to outperform more opaque ones.” He cites a 2005 study finding that a group of 27 U.S. companies noted as “most transparent” beat the S&P 500 by 11.3 percent.

Like the effective companies in the study, teams in my class that share inevitably outperform those that do not. In one of the exercises, transparency is the difference between a creative outcome due to the unique information held by the “worker” team and a drawn-out, brute-force solution that’s worse for everyone. The faster the management team shares the task requirements, the quicker the worker team is to trigger the creative solution to this intricate puzzle building task. Performance goes from complete failure, or a 10-minute build, to as fast as 11 seconds.

So if transparency is nearly always the best approach, should you always immediately share everything with your collaborators? No. My advice is to stop and look first. Then if you can reasonably do so, share at least the main features of the situation. You’ll find that it is easier to explain the details once you understand the background and perspective of your collaborators and they understand yours. You may also be surprised that your collaborators have wonderful advice even if they are not hierarchically in a position where you would expect the insight. Finally, listen. Learn from this experience and setting in order to improve on the next collaboration.

Are you seeing a change in management practice?  Do you feel that the last few years have provided more or less transparency in your collaborations? For better or for worse?