the KOAN method

Reading List

081 – Ethan Bernstein. The Transparency Trap

Bernstein, Ethan. “The Transparency Trap”. Harvard Business Review (October

To promote accountability, productivity, and shared learning, many organizations create open work environments and gather reams of data on how individuals spend their time. A few years ago, HBS professor Ethan Bernstein set out to find empirical evidence that such approaches improve organizational performance. What he discovered is that this kind of transparency often has an unintended consequence: It can leave employees feeling vulnerable and exposed. When that happens, they conceal any conduct that deviates from the norm so that they won’t have to explain it. Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes stop altogether.

But Bernstein also discovered organizations that had established zones of privacy within open environments by setting four types of boundaries: around teams, between feedback and evaluation, between decision rights and improvement rights, and around periods of experimentation. Moreover, across several studies, the companies that had done all this were the ones that consistently got the most creative, efficient, and thoughtful work from their employees.

Bernstein’s conclusion? By balancing transparency and privacy, organizations can capture the benefits of both, and encourage just the right amount of “positive deviance” needed to increase innovation and productivity.