You Don’t Have to Default to Radical Transparency

Over the last few years, radical transparency has become a much-discussed benchmark for a healthy company culture. While it’s true that increasing transparency from the business norms of the past is becoming a crucial factor to the modern workplace, radical transparency isn’t something you should automatically default to.

If it aligns with your values, as it did for Buffer, and you’ve thought through the implications, go for it. But if through thoughtful consideration you realize, as Google did, that transparency is important to your company yet you also value privacy, you might default to a level of transparency that’s less radical.

In Work Rules!, author and SVP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock, cites the proven effectiveness of transparency on performance and productivity. He uses the example of hospitals in New York State, which, after being required to report deaths from coronary artery bypass surgery, saw these surgery-related deaths fall by 41% over the next four years. Just from sharing data.

Bock cites another example of Bridgewater Associates, which advocates for radical transparency to help reduce ego barriers, increase integrity, and more rapidly learn from mistakes. Among their practices is recording almost every meeting so any relevant people can review what happened verbatim, and form their own opinions. 

While Bock acknowledges the merits of this sort of extreme openness, he notes that “that level of transparency is further than Google has gone. In part that’s because we feel strongly that privacy is an individual right. For example, user data is fiercely protected.”

Google does help ensure that, internally, information is widely available to employees. They also make a strong effort to prevent toxic internal politics. Bock recalls a memory from his early days at Google when he had complained about someone to his manager, and the manager promptly CCed that person so they could deal with their conflict directly.

Buffer, on the other hand, has adopted a more extreme varietal of transparency. Their second core value is “default to transparency,” and is something strongly embedded in their culture. From publicly sharing every employee’s salaries and equity, to their exact revenue and pricing breakdown, to sharing candid blog posts on cultural experiments and failures (like when they offered unlimited vacation time), Buffer applies this value not just to their employees, but anyone who takes an interest.

Like these two companies, the level of transparency your company opts for should be in alignment with your company values, otherwise it could lead to significant ethical conflict down the road. That said, you should flex your comfort zone in the area of transparency. Push a little further than you want to—that’s where growth happens—but not so far that it causes you to breach other core values.

To sum it up in Bock’s words:

“Fundamentally, if you’re an organization that says, ‘Our people are our greatest asset’ (as most do), and you mean it, you must default to open. Otherwise, you’re lying to your people and to yourself. You’re saying people matter but treating them like they don’t. Openness demonstrates to your employees that you believe they are trustworthy and have good judgment. And giving them more context about what is happening (and how and why) will enable them to do their jobs more effectively and contribute in ways a top-down manager couldn’t anticipate.”