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Leading Off
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Organizations know that external stakeholders demand transparency and that it’s good strategy to provide it. Companies that openly share information about their operations are more likely to attract investors, avoid regulatory scrutiny, and face fewer controversies. But sharing information within a company is another matter. While internal transparency certainly helps build employee trust and collaboration across the organization, it can backfire in ways that leaders may not anticipate. This week, let’s explore when it’s advisable to share information internally and when it’s not.
Image of a transparent blob on black background
Share information on a need-to-know basis
Good leaders know the importance of communicating openly, but they also know when to hold back. Excessive sharing of day-to-day business activities may lead to never-ending debate over executive decisions or too many people weighing in without the relevant knowledge or responsibility. Furthermore, many employees do not want to know all of their organization’s inner workings or be burdened with information that is not pertinent to their jobs. Some companies share employee earnings and feedback on performance, but this practice could be controversial, inciting mistrust of leadership or perceptions of unfairness. In most cases, when deciding who should know what, leaders should consider matching transparency with responsibility and provide privileged access to information only to those who need it to make decisions.
That’s the percentage of data breaches caused by employee negligence or malicious acts, which can result in substantial losses for organizations. The prevalence of remote-work arrangements only compounds the situation: for example, employees may access sensitive information from home through their personal devices or share data over nonsecure channels. The solution is not to mount an invasive monitoring campaign but rather to restrict access to the information that is most important to protect, identify the groups and individuals most likely to be insider threats, and design targeted interventions such as retention programs for people who may leave the organization and take intellectual property with them.
“The visibility created by transparency conjures up self-consciousness and inhibitions.”
That’s Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein on how too much transparency can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. In a factory that Bernstein observed during his research, workers went to great lengths to hide rather than share productive ideas for fear of criticism or being misunderstood by managers—a classic example of how being observed distorts behavior instead of improving it. To counter this, Bernstein suggests balancing transparency with boundaries or “zones of privacy.” For instance, information could be shared within teams but not necessarily with other parts of the organization, or certain employees could be given privacy for limited periods of time to experiment and innovate without scrutiny.
Photo of Sandra J. Sucher
Nothing but total transparency from an organization will suffice when it makes mistakes, says Harvard Business School professor Sandra J. Sucher in this McKinsey interview. “The first step of the process is to take responsibility for the harm you’ve created and to apologize for it,” she says. “The second step—and this gets hard—is to fix accountability for what was wrong.” In such situations, it’s important to focus not just on legal matters or placating external shareholders but also on winning back employee trust by addressing the root cause of the problem. “So it’s these three steps: apologize, fix accountability, and manage the long-term foundation issues that created the breach in the first place,” Sucher says.
Image of several chattering teeth toys
Disclosing too much information to the public—especially on social media—can damage reputations and personal relationships. The same warning applies to the workplace. Want to “bring your whole self” to work? Maybe you shouldn’t. At least not in every setting. Many good intentions underlie today’s increasing calls for authenticity at the office—after all, better communication and connectedness can only improve productivity. But authenticity only works if leaders have a realistic view of themselves and know what to reveal and when. Unless you have an accurate read on your audience, context, and motives, it may be best to keep personal information where it belongs—to yourself. One executive’s graphic story of staying up all night with a sick baby elicited discomfort from the audience rather than empathy; another’s revelation about losing a client turned into a cultural faux pas. As psychologist Mike Rucker puts it, “It’s natural to want to develop a relationship with our colleagues, but the workplace is not always a well-suited environment for intimate rapport.”
Lead discreetly.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford, Connecticut, office
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