Taking transparency a step too far

by 19 Aug 2009

Despite repeated calls for greater transparency within companies, there are instances in which it is appropriate to mind what you say, writes David Creelman

HR is challenging, because so much of the work we do with people and organisations in volves balancing in the middle rather than fol lowing simple rules. Finding the right spot in the middle is tough to do because it’s a mat ter of judgement and it’s not easy to explain why you chose one particular position in the middle ground over another. Furthermore, people prefer simple rules. It is easy to get up and give a rousing speech on why clarity is so important. It is harder to explain that some times ambiguity can be good too—but that is exactly what I am about to attempt.

Clarity v Ambiguity

There was a peculiar moment in Canadian pol itics in 2000 when former Prime Minister Joe Clark criticised what is called the Clarity Act (which sets out the rules for when a province wants to secede). Clark suggested that rather than clari ty we would be better off with ambiguity.

Consultants and experts are always call ing for clarity, but here was a seasoned polit ical leader making a public defence of ambi guity. Why? There are reasons ambiguity can be helpful. One is that clarity can lock you into an approach that may not prove to be the best choice. Clark wanted to keep the rules around provincial sessions ambiguous so that there would always be room for negotiations be tween the Federal Government and the provinces — and that’s not such a bad idea. Clarity can reduce our freedom of action.

Ambiguity allows different stakeholders to interpret things in slightly different ways so they can all be satisfied. If you write an agree ment with a union where there is some vague language around a contentious but largely symbolic issue, then both sides can go back to their stakeholders and claim they “won”.

But clarity isn’t the only simple and ap pealing guideline that can lead us astray. We can also be misled by the value of transparency and informality.

Transparency v Secrecy

It’s very popular these days to endorse “trans parency” which means that, rather than keep ing information secret, you make it public. If you are being transparent then information about who was at a certain meeting and what was agreed there will be publicly available, rather than kept to an elite group.

There are good reasons for transparency, particularly in the political world where secre cy is often linked to the misuse of public funds or inappropriate legislation. So, too, in the pri vate sector transparency can help deter bad behaviour. And while everyone recognises there are some things that need to be secret — no company is going to give away trade secrets to competitors — there is the feeling that as long as you are being honest there is no reason for secrecy. Alas, things are not so simple.

One reason for secrecy is that people don’t want to (and often can’t afford to) be seen as saying something that might be considered stupid. If an organisation recorded all execu tive meetings and made the recordings avail able to all employees executives would not speak freely. They wouldn’t take any risks. What a statement means is dependent on con text. Something said behind closed doors to a small group of peers can mean something very different than that to a wider audience.

Informality v Formality

In many English-speaking countries informality is seen as a virtue. Why be all stuffy and for mal? But there are reasons for making the dis tinction between formal and informal actions. In an informal meeting you can test out ideas and opinions. You might say “I think our Ko rean operation is in trouble”. Perhaps you will find others think the same thing. Eventually this might lead to some action. However, to say “I think our Korean operation is in trou ble” in a formal meeting creates a whole other dynamic. It puts you on the spot and it puts management on the spot. Either action has to be taken or your idea needs to be put down.

Similarly a formal complaint about sexual ha rassment forces HR into a certain course of ac tion whereas an informal comment about inap propriate behaviour can lead to a discreet conversation that will get the person to change. In fact one reason the role of the ombudsman exists is to create a semi-formal place to pursue issues that cannot be resolved appropriately through either formal or informal channels.

Finding the Balance

It is important to remember that ambiguity, secrecy, and formality have important roles to play in organisations. The wise HR man ager is one who understands the subtleties involved and seeks out the right balance.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management. He is investing much of his time in helping HR VPs report to the Board about human capital.

He may be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com