Systems Thinking Theory and Practice

Truth not Transparency

By Kevin Mueller,

Our obsession with transparency does more harm than good. Truthful communication is the key to outstanding teamwork.

Humans Are Not Made of Glass

The term transparency is ubiquous in organizations of the western world. The quest for the “human made of glass” is old. But is reading each others minds really desirable? Tranparency has become a mantra in the business world; as if laying everything out in the open were the magic key to successful collaboration. It is a sham though: the noise of full transparency would make work impossible, we’d be lost in distraction. Transparency holds an inherent danger of too much information, which in turn causes obfuscation, insecurity and mistrust.

Truth builds Trust

UPDATE October 2nd 2023: In the years that followed the original publication, I learnt that radical candour has its problems. I shall leave the following paragraph published in 2020 untouched, adding my current thinking right after.

One thing that makes collaboration and business efficient is truth or “radical candour” as Kim Scott calls it. The truth about shortcomings, mistakes, misconceptions and prejudice must come out fast and in full. This is what will stop projects from failing and relationships from going sour. Alongside the art of listening and of reflection, truthfulness is what makes for high performing teams. Honesty is core to building lasting trust.

The problem with radical candour is that it can steamroll people’s feelings in a disrespectful and unempathic way. Being both truthful and empathic is challenging but is likely a safer and better approach to building trust than being radically candid. It might mean waiting for the right moment to voice a reaction rather than addressing it instantly, as well as framing it carefully.

Truth Takes Courage

Truth unfortunately is not a common currency in our central European world. Being candid is mostly regarded as impolite and damaging even for the image of the organization. When did you last hear a manager state “I don’t know” or “I was wrong” in a business context? The pressure to conceal “inadequacies” in business is high. This pressure comes from an atmosphere of fear fostered in “controlling” organizations, where the focus is on survival and on not “losing face” rather than on progress through learning with (and from) each other. Being truthful about our own shortcomings makes us vulnerable, that takes courage, but it can inspire others to speak up. It will accelerate progress, innovation and allows us to take pride to what we do.