Transparency has made its way into nearly every corporate mission statement across America. However, do we truly seek be entirely transparent? New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has felt the sting of an open environment during the National Football League’s (NFL) investigation into deflated footballs.
The investigative report chronicles text messages between an equipment assistant and a locker-room attendant. These conversations include references to All-Star quarterback Tom Brady being aware of the ball tampering. Through this investigation, which the media has dubbed Deflate-gate, the NFL is trying to protect the integrity of the game and ultimately their brand. Will this transparency ruin the reputation of Tom Brady who is on-course to be a first-ballot hall of famer when he retires? Has the NFL improved their brand by making this infraction public?
Leaders often question the degrees they should go to be transparent? According to Ethan Bernstein, a professor in the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School, transparency can actually reduce productivity:
Here’s the paradox: For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions… Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide.
In my research, I found that 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.
In the case of the NFL, Deflate-gate has caused outrage, especially outside of New England. But without all the facts, we need to ask the extent to which the court of public opinion should determine employee discipline. Keyboard crusaders and chatroom trolls call for resignations and firings first and ask questions later. Is it blood-thirst brought on by ignorance or is justice the natural by-product of transparency?
When investigations like Deflate-gate include digital records (text messages, video, and social media posts) of every conversation and decision, which are taken out of context and passed through the values filter, we end up with real backlash. As Berstein’s research found,
Advanced sensing and tracking technologies make behavior highly visible in real time. How all that information should be used—by individuals, their teams, their supervisors—is a management question, not a technology question. Organizational cultures that foster psychological safety, trust, balanced power dynamics, and collaboration can help. But it’s also critical for leaders to mitigate transparency with zones of privacy, enabling just the right amount of deviance to foster innovation and productivity.”
Transparency means allowing others to see the good and the bad. As leaders we need to recognize and be prepared for unintended consequences of public visibility. In order to maintain a culture of trust we need to admit when we are wrong and plot the course to correct it.
Despite the controversy I will continue to be a fan of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. In this new world of transparency however, will I still believe my cable news channels, government officials, and employers are looking out for my best interest? My hopes may be deflated.
Ed Russo is the Program Manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Mr. Russo works with educators, law enforcement, community leaders, and government officials to implement child safety resources into schools and communities across the country. Through presentations and trainings, Mr. Russo provides participants with information about how safety resources can help prevent the victimization of children.