On Privacy, Transparency, and Trust

two person standing under lot of bullet cctv camera

Transformational leadership inspires positive changes in those who follow. Transformational leaders are vibrant, enthusiastic, and inspirational. Not only are these leaders committed to the process, but they help every member of the group succeed as well.

In modern organizations, especially in distributed environments where most work happens online, we cultivate transparency as a crucial cultural element. We document our processes, have standup meetings, and many companies push towards the extreme circulation of information within the organization’s ranks.

When I joined Automattic, a fully distributed company, it took me a few weeks to get used to asking questions in public channels instead of relying on private chat messages. However, getting accustomed to discussing matters in public has significant advantages for everyone.

For example, a question asked in public reaches more people who may have the answer instead of being forwarded a hundred times before getting to someone who can provide help.

When teams share their updates publicly within the organization, it’s more accessible for stakeholders to interface with them, gather more context before making requests, and be more informed about how the business is developing.

But when this idea of extreme transparency goes too far, we may get in trouble. Total transparency has been debunked as a myth, big times. For example, in the article “The Transparency Trap” on HBR, Ethan Bernstein says:

My findings […] suggest that more-transparent environments are not always better. Privacy is just as essential for performance.

I push it a little further. To me, privacy is also essential for transformational leadership.

In his studies, Bernstein finds that in organizations that pursue total transparency:

[…] individuals and groups routinely wasted significant resources in an effort to conceal beneficial activities because they believed that bosses, peers, and external observers who might see them would have “no idea” how to “properly understand” them. Even when everyone involved had only the best of intentions, being observed distorted behavior instead of improving it.

What is this telling us about the relationship between the employees and their stakeholders? First, when people are required to give up privacy in the workplace, a crucial element of trust is inevitably lost.

When expectations of transparency are unilateral and excessive, the relationships in the organization become transactional. People will start following guidelines to the letter, meeting specs with extreme caution, and they won’t feel comfortable experimenting anymore.

There is a reason why musicians perform in public but rehearse in private.

A solid body of research demonstrates that in the presence of others, people do better on repetitive, rehearsed tasks (called dominant responses). However, people perform worse in public on learning tasks that call for creative thinking. 

Based on these premises, here are some of the principles I apply to make sure I can strike a balance between privacy and transparency with the teams I manage:

  • I don’t track the working hours of my team members, but only the work done.
  • Weekly status updates are only limited to the essential impact items and do not require a complete record of the performed tasks.
  • I encourage people to keep their calendars private.
  • My teams are encouraged to have private channels among peers without their manager in them.
  • We don’t publish meeting minutes but only the outcomes and decisions.
  • People can attend meetings with their cameras turned off if they prefer.

I noticed over the years that providing safe spaces where teams can explore new ideas without the fear of getting their words on record allowed forms of expression that led to more creative ideas.

There are companies, for instance, that have a solid habit of recording online meetings to make them available to people who cannot attend. However, if the intention of increasing accessibility is positive, I experienced that people start to hold back on spontaneous reactions when they are recorded.

For this reason, I discourage the recording of meetings, favoring asynchronous notes on internal channels. Notes that report decisions rather than individual comments during the sessions.

Trust is the cornerstone of transformative relationships, which support a transformative leadership style. To develop that trust, I learned that I needed to give away part of the control in management, and I had to respect people’s privacy in the workplace.

We have a fertile ground for transformative leadership when there is a good mix of transparency, privacy, and trust. In the absence of such balance, we must accept that most of our relationships become transactional at most. In some circumstances, this alternative can be functional, but it’s less effective when we expect creative output from our organization.


Thanks to John Nicholas for the review of this essay.

Published by Luca Sartoni

I lead three teams of engineers across four continents at Automattic. I love hiking, photography, and 3D printers.

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