The Dark Side of Transparency

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By Lars Thøger Christensen.

Transparency is essentially about creating insight into organizational and institutional practices in order to allow for critique, stimulate improvement and hold politicians and decision makers accountable. As such, transparency is an essential dimension of a rational, open and democratic society. Without transparency, there is great potential for manipulation, negligence and fraud. Yet, transparency may itself be manipulative. Even when the intention is to disclose and stimulate insight, the results may be less benign. Whenever something is illuminated and pulled out for further inspection, something else remains in the dark.

Any serious pursuit of transparency needs to consider what the pursuit itself is doing to public insight, what it “hides” so to speak and what remains out of view.

Part of this problem resides in the way we understand transparency. While openness and insight may be the ultimate goals, it is commonplace to define transparency in more prosaic terms, for example as information provision. With oceans of information available at our fingertips, the world certainly appears far more transparent than ever before. Yet, accurate information about complex issues, such as sustainability or social responsibility, is usually not easy to digest. Most information about such matters, thus, is often accessible only to experts. And whenever it is made accessible to lay people, it has been subjected to multiple processes of editing and simplification.

No information speaks for itself and attempts to make it “speak” hide as much as it disclose.

Another problem concerns the organizational behavior we hope to see and understand better through practices of transparency. If we think that organizations and decision makers continue to conduct business as usual when subjected to increased transparency, we are utterly wrong. Transparency is not a neutral tool that simply illuminates a preexisting world. When people in organizations know that their talk, decisions and actions are publicly accessible, they are less inclined to experiment, take chances, share ideas, or talk freely about their accomplishments, ideals, assessments and aspirations. This is the case in numerous organizational processes, including meetings, bargaining games, conflict resolutions, idea generation, etc. where the need to withhold some information and protect identities or strategic positions are often important concerns. In such cases, the willingness to share complete and accurate information may be limited and replaced by a desire to “send the right signals” or make the right impressions.

Transparency may cause organizational members to hold back or otherwise adjust behavior.

As a result, we may see less than we think. Even when transparency is enforced by rules and regulations, like for example social responsibility reporting in some countries, participants have a tendency to alter and edit their behaviours in ways that conform to social norms and expectations (i.e. by creating a “front”). Organizational behaviour is certainly not unaffected by increased transparency demands. Thus, we know that organisations carefully select, simplify, and summarize data before they are revealed, that they selectively disclose or leak information, for example through competitive signalling and they shrewdly manage the timing of disclosure, sometimes with the intention of deflecting critique or handling potential issues. Moreover, producers and custodians of data often shift the medium, the classification scheme, or the level of comparisons when forced to share information that used to be confidential.

Demands for more transparency are likely to be handled strategically by organizations.

None of this is to suggest that transparency should be avoided or reduced. Quite the contrary. But it is a reminder that transparency ideals and practices are shaping organizations in dramatic ways and that our desire for more transparency needs to include a desire to know its limitations.


Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School.

Pics by Roland Molnár and I Want a Poster, Flickr

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