Michael Dubakov
Michael Dubakov
Fibery founder
Essays

(Non) transparent work culture

I don’t like liver sausage. But I like politics even less. I can simply never buy liver sausage, but I have to deal with politics all the time. Where there’s more than one person, politics inevitably appears. And so every organization has to deal with it, regardless of how well the work culture is developed. We can do nothing about politics at the workplace because people tend to do their best to get what they want.

Liver sausage in all its glory
Liver sausage in all its glory

Politics (and, thus, concrete policies) can endorse transparency or opaqueness. I kinda can live with a transparent policy, but I do hate the non-transparent version. Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to detect. I’m not good at detecting it.

I’ll further call the policies in the context of a workplace “company/work culture” because we’re talking about companies here and leave discussing the need for radical transparency on other levels to other people.

Opaque company culture thrives where information flow is hindered.

Information exchange can be violated by a variety of factors:

  • Team communication fails because people get cross with each other for some reason and don’t want to communicate. Or people don’t particularly like each other and don’t want to communicate.
  • Contacts between teams are discouraged on the company level.
  • There’s no transparent leadership. The team has no idea what their manager is doing.
  • There are just many, maybe too many teams.
  • Managers don’t share everything they know, making the information flow asymmetrical.
  • A deep and strong hierarchy distorts communication.
  • Too many managers and the internal competition is intense. Don’t get me wrong, but managers love to possess and control information, which doesn’t always result in great productivity or effective communication.

When all these factors accumulate and layer in corporate culture, space emerges for all kinds of filthy practices and shady maneuvers. You can now easily trash-talk Jane behind her back with dozens of other people without fearing she will find out. This is how mutual trust is killed. Then, you can make bad publicity for other people and spread rumors, incredible in their virality, without someone ever revealing where all the shit is coming from. Chances for getting honest feedback plummet dramatically.

In a non-transparent work culture, you can tell different people different things about the same problem. You can complain to your boss about John without fear of direct confrontation. For an inventive politician, fascinating opportunities open up to achieve their goals. Such people will do a bare minimum of useful work, simultaneously presenting themselves as a “shock worker” of capitalist labor to the right people. Long story short, this all is a very bad situation for employee morale and motivation.

One can and should fight opaque company culture, and there are different ways to do so. 👇

The most important step in this fight is to make the information exchange limitless. People need to form horizontal networks, bypassing hierarchical structures. The results of the work of each team, group, and person must be public. Criticism should be expressed in person, not implied. All indirect criticism should lead to a confrontation, all parties to the conflict invited. Conflicts must be resolved, not allowed to fester.

Information transparency exposes every opaque object. Clearwater in a pool allows you to see a coin at the bottom, but there’s no way in hell you’ll see that coin at the bottom of Rio Grande. In a metaphorical communicative pool, politicians are having trouble. Within a company with transparent communication, there’s always a chance the rumors will be revealed, dishing people behind their back will become apparent, manipulation will be detected, and one would need to confront Jane in person.

The second step is to encourage complete openness. Unfortunately, openness is not a basic personality trait for most people. And yet, everything becomes much easier for everyone when we’re all open. You just always say what you think. Yes, this makes communication much more subjective but, at least, it removes the seal of secrecy that often distorts the information flow. Openness speeds up decision-making, speeds up discussions, and helps to build trust.

Becoming open is a hard and slow process for people and teams. People only open up when they feel safe. Therefore, one must ensure safety to foster transparency. And so we shouldn’t punish people for manifestations of openness such as honest negative feedback, expressing their point of view, or criticism resulting from the high level of engagement. What we should condemn is stuff like hushing up problems, lack of feedback, and shady deal-making.

The third step is to reduce the number of managers. The fewer bosses and managers there are, the less shady workplace politics become. However, it only works to a certain point. You can’t abolish senior leadership altogether. I think that one manager per twenty employees is a good ratio. If you remove all managers and replace them with processes, political problems will persist anyway. It’s ineradicable. Just like liver sausage. 🙄

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