Toxic transparency

The dark side of being an open book

Mohammad Anwar
Feb 2 · 5 min read

The pandemic was ramping up, the economy was crashing — and I had to announce our company’s response in a company-wide meeting in a few days. So, I decided to take my work to the backyard — the crisp, spring air (a Houston rarity) would help clear my head and ease my nerves.

So I sat on my patio at home, poring over notes, financial projections, and slide deck after slide deck. But, one thing kept catching my eye, the list of soon-to-be furloughed employees (60% of the company). A million questions then ensued.

How do I reconcile a decision that is necessary for our survival, while at the same time putting so many people I care about in such a precarious position?

What information would be helpful and what would be harmful?

Can I be honest and blunt without seeming insensitive?

How much of myself and my emotions can I share?

And ultimately, is there a point where my being transparent can become toxic?

I was immeasurably stuck — when suddenly, a bird swooped over the hedges, across the yard, and careened into a very clean window with a bang. For the bird, answers to questions about transparency were obvious.

However, I didn’t have answers, not then and not in that meeting.

But, over the coming weeks and months, answering those questions and finding a balance between “responsible transparency” and “toxic transparency” became easier.

Transparency is healthy — it builds trust and it’s empowering. However, when transparency is displayed carelessly, or responded to with dispassion and nonchalance, it can very quickly become a barrier between where you are, and where you need to be.

In this conversation, we’ll be focusing on the other side of transparency. The darker side.

The dark side of transparency

I strive for transparency — I believe that it isn’t my company, but our company. I believe everyone should be privy to our business’s finances, status, and strategic direction. I owe it to them.

However, when the business is doing well it’s easy — everybody likes delivering good news, “Would you like the good news or the good news first?”

It’s in the somber moments and difficult conversations where being transparent requires tactfulness and immense consideration. Your being transparent during serious, pivotal moments can backfire and act as a barrier to moving forward and strengthening morale through crises.

Here’s some insights to help you avoid crossing over to the dark side.

“It’s sooo cathartic.” Well, it shouldn’t be.

As leaders we can get swamped with emotions, plagued with intrusive thoughts — and feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. It happens.

But, what shouldn’t happen when we’re faced with hardship is view transparency as an opportunity for a cathartic experience. Company meetings and announcements are not the place for emotional purging or spiritual renewal.

There are boundaries. And those boundaries don’t just keep you from sharing a little TMI (too much information) — they keep morale up and prevent people from feeling alienated, or weirded out.

Now, I’m not saying you have to put up walls or lie to people about your feelings. But ask yourself before opening up, “Will my being transparent help move us forward?”

Understanding your emotions is challenging — but understanding how expressing those emotions can influence and motivate others is vastly more meaningful.

“I scratch your back, you scratch mine?” No.

Transparency is not about reciprocity.

“I allowed you access to privileged information and strategic insights, so you have to do what I say,” or, “I was vulnerable and shared my emotional state, so you have to, too.”

Transparency is not a bargaining chip or hand you can play as a leader to gain conformance or illicit a specific behavior. That is manipulation and it’s extortive — and it again violates boundaries between boss and employee.

Being a transparent leader is a personal choice, but expecting the same transparency from others, has to happen organically — it requires trust, patience, and gentle encouragement.

“OPEN THE FLOODGATES!”

“Transparency for transparency’s sake is good policy.”

Well, it may be nice symbolically, but it’s not good policy — and it’s not pragmatic either. Don’t believe me?

If information grows collective intelligence, why not bombard people with even more information? If opening the strategic-kimono ever-so-slightly, builds autonomy — why not just take the whole thing off? And if new people bring different thinking and solutions to meetings, why not just invite everyone to every meeting?

Ever put your mouth around a fire hydrant? Wouldn’t recommend it.

I also wouldn’t recommend unloading, unleashing, and opening the information-floodgates on your teams either. When you release information without proper context or framing for transparency’s sake, you become liable to doing more damage than good.

Imagine if you will: an organization of almost 200 people, all transparently given the same facts, but left to their own devices to analyze and make sense of those facts. They’re going to be swimming in misconceptions and become saturated with essentially misinformation.

Transparency is not meaningful in and of itself — it’s a means to an end. And as a means to an end, there has to be context and intentionality. Without it, getting your company from here to there can become seriously hindered.

Transparency’s like comedy, it’s all about timing.

Comedy is about timing, transparency is about timing — imagine having very helpful information, but sharing it after the fact. Or having incomplete, preliminary data and sharing it with your team anyway.

When information is shared too late, it’s frustrating and leads to a deterioration of trust with leadership. “Thanks a lot boss, great looking out!” That’s what they’ll say, sarcastically.

The flip side, when incomplete information is shared prematurely, you’re more than likely to create a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario — or rather leader cried wolf. Directing your teams to run full steam towards a consideration, only to have that change as new information becomes available is fatiguing. And come time when there’s an actual wolf, your team won’t believe you.

These two scenarios are huge barriers to turning information into action. They’re another dimension of responsible transparency: that it’s not just what you share and how you share it, but when you share.

Timing is everything.

When business is good, transparency and sharing come easy.

However, in these precarious, uncertain, and strange times; we’ve come to rely intensely on communication — and not just communication, but over communication. So, how do leaders err on the good side of transparency? Responsible transparency.

For one, we do not rush, force, or share information in haste. Instead, we are thoughtful, clear, and deliberate. When strategies shift and new information becomes available we do not rush to disperse, rather we clearly explain our collective response to that new information.

We listen, we encourage, and we ask for help and patience. Transparency is a community effort, not a one-way street from leader to employee. When everyone has the air cover to be transparent, everyone can grow (leaders too).

And be sure not to share every conversation, thought, or feeling — only what is substantial in the moment, and potentially meaningful in the future. We are transparent to build empathy and momentum — not to commiserate, garner pity, or calm our conscience.

Finding the balance between responsible transparency and toxic transparency is easier said than done — especially in the uncertain times we face today — but it can be the difference between getting stuck and sticking it out.

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