Ills of too much transparency
In the last few days, circumstances forced the Supreme Court and the Catholic Church in Kerala, two organizations that normally operate in complete secrecy, to open up about a few of their decisions. Since what came out in the open were issues of impropriety, the immediate demand from all quarters was for even more openness about the functioning of both these organizations.
The Catholic Church is a 2,000 year old organization that has made secrecy an art form. The case isn’t too different for the Supreme Court in India. The key decisions were taken only by a select few insiders and the man in the street was never privy to the machinations. The common man had no option but to obey their decisions or face the consequences, in complete silence.
Like sunlight, the ideal disinfectant, transparency has been considered the panacea against corruption in organizations and society. Transparency allows access to all decision-making processes. Decisionmakers know that what they say or do will be linked to them personally. They all know that their performance will be evaluated by others according to some normative standards. The decisionmaker is also expected to provide clear reasons for taking any decisions. Thus, transparency is expected to bring in the twin benefits of clarity about a decision and holding the decisionmaker accountable for it.
It seems that more transparency can only do more good. Should organizations then open up all their decision-making processes?
As the chorus for more transparency was heard around the world, behavioural scientists did their bit to study the impact of more transparency. According to Ethan Bernstein of Harvard University, the issue of transparency can be seen from the point of view of the observer or from the point of view of the observed. Almost all the discussion on transparency has looked at the issue from the point of view of the observer. From that angle one can only visualize good things that will accrue due to new levels of openness.
But when we look at the issue of transparency from the point of view of the observed, the whole issue takes on a complexity of a different order. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, being observed creates a feeling of being “on stage” among those who being are observed. As soon as they know of it, the observed will always change their behaviour to control others’ impressions and avoid embarrassments.
Transparency puts those observing the decisions in an evaluative mode, looking at everything with a critical eye. Right from prime time television debates to discussions on social media, we tend to focus on what has possibly gone wrong. We rarely use evaluations to look for opportunities to praise the decisionmaker. So the consequent tendency of the observed is a defensive one—to not be seen as doing anything wrong.
Innovation and creativity do not stem from a linear, as per existing rules, decisionmaking process. All innovations have come from experimenting with and even going against the status quo. The evaluative mood that transparency engenders obliterates any attempts at experimentation.
Innovation results from non-conscious processes in the brain. The consciousness of a person cannot explain the rationale for decisions that led to an innovative outcome. It is worse if the attempt to come up with an innovative solution was a failure. So the decisionmaker can neither explain why he took those decisions nor has anything to show in terms of results for walking a path different from what has been laid out according to existing rules. They know that those who cannot provide satisfactory justifications for their actions will face negative consequences.
Innovation cannot happen if there is no scope for experimentation or if failures are not tolerated, if not encouraged. The critical, evaluative mood that transparency creates will nip innovation in the bud.
Studies have shown that workers are at their most productive and creative when they are not observed, suggesting that performance improvements can sometimes be achieved by creating “zones of privacy”.
Calling for complete transparency in all decisionmaking also makes a crucial assumption about the powers of the brains of those observing the decisions. It assumes that the brains of those observing the decisions have the expertise to process all the information regarding that particular decision and arrive at the right conclusions. The truth is that most of us do not have expertise even in one field but have a tendency to be evaluative about almost all decisions, more so those decisions that affect us. Transparency tends to give a wrong feeling that having a point-of-view and having an expert point-of-view are the same.
Transparency is seen by many to be a panacea for many ills in organizations and society. But transparency is one issue that reminds us of the complex nature of human behaviour. In as much as we gain as we improve the transparency of decisions in organizations and society, we should be cognizant of the losses the pursuit for transparency entails.
One should be careful of what we wish for. Too much of a good thing can actually be harmful. It is one thing to demand more and more transparency. But it is quite a different matter to decide how much transparency, for whom and in what context is most beneficial. Yes, sunlight is a good disinfectant, but sunstroke is an instant killer too.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.
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