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Why is transparency so scary?

By Creg Schumann, Enterprise Principal

Two people hold hands while standing on the Skydeck at Willis Tower, Chicago to convey why transparency is so scary


  1. The quality of allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen.
  2. The quality of being easy to perceive or detect.

Does transparency scare the living $#*! out of you? When you are forced onto these glass floors at extreme heights, it’s darn scary. Imagine you are new to a team. Let’s say you’re even new to a career. With both of those conditions, you know you want to make a great impression. You want, naturally, to be respected and trusted to have the skills and abilities to do what is needed for that team you have just joined. You don’t want to appear weak; you want to prove that you can do it and solve your own problems. So, what do you do? You go solve your problem alone. And here you are – in this thing called a Daily Scrum. The things you’ve pulled into “in progress” aren’t moving very fast. In fact, a few of them have been there now for half the sprint. The team, not wanting to make you feel bad about a lack of progress doesn’t say anything in response to your, “I have a little bit more to do.” To you, this is just like all those high-flying glass floors that make you feel you have no support. It seems like you will fall to your death if you actually provide the transparency that you don’t know how to do a thing.

Maybe, in your organization, teams are so “transparent” that it’s difficult to see anything at all. When you look into the work, does it feel as though you’re looking through a clear glass tower, where you don’t see people, what they are doing, or how they move about the building? Sometimes, you might be shown something that appears perfectly clear – however, there are hidden things that you may not know to look for or ask about. (This kind of “transparency” reminds me of those buildings that use cool new tech to make them look see-through, but you know they’ve got elevators, people, furniture, and more in there – you just can’t see them!).

I have seen teams provide this kind of “transparency” by answering the question, “How’s it going?” with, “It’s great! We’re right on track and our velocity is increasing sprint over sprint. The team is really happy and we’re in a steady state.” What’s missing here? The impact your work is having on the end user. Is that because you only release on an infrequent basis? If so, that doesn’t provide a lot of transparency. Internally, the team that builds a thing and the people inside who specified what to build are likely quite happy with themselves sprint after sprint without any validation from a real customer. Is this type of transparency okay? What could possibly go wrong?

How about the transparency you set up for yourself, either for people looking at you, or for you looking at others? Have you put something in place that blurs your view of someone else, or someone else’s view of you? This often happens because of the many biases that can influence us – like confirmation bias, commitment bias, anchoring bias, or zero risk bias. It can also be our own epistemic arrogance that prevents us from figuring out that we may actually be wrong. It can be scary to lift that film and look at others – or ourselves – as clearly as possible.

Good transparency is a system and culture that helps us see the value in what we are producing and find the not-so-useful things that may come along for the ride. However, finding those things isn’t enough. Deciding what to do with what you have found is critical. Otherwise, why even bother with this tough world of transparency? Having transparency is not natural for us humans. It makes us feel vulnerable and at risk. In a workplace culture with low psychological safety, being transparent is much more difficult – and scary. Building a workplace culture that values psychological safety sets the stage for an honest, transparent ethos.

Transparency has many rewards, but don’t forget the downside. If your environment isn’t a safe and trusting place, transparency can be anxiety-inducing and downright risky – even beyond the natural fear associated with telling the whole truth. To lower fear and increase transparency in your workplace, you have to start by increasing both trust and safety at least as much. Once you do, the ability to spot value through the transparency becomes a competitive advantage – and your work environment becomes a better place to be along the way.

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