Modern management literature is rife with praise for policies that emphasize corporate transparency.
In many cases, this is for good reason. Transparent financial and leadership practices are thought to help better align and engage employees, and open floor plans are lauded for stimulating collaboration.
But there's a downside to all this transparency: It can come at the expense of employee productivity. That's what Harvard Business School professor Ethan S. Bernstein found and detailed in his paper, "The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control."
Bernstein's study, detailed at Harvard's Working Knowledge website, doesn't break ground in its suggestion that employees figure out the quickest ways to get things done. Nor is it particularly novel in saying that this is accomplished because workers are able to identify the sorts of shortcuts and workarounds that boost productivity.
The paper turned heads by showing that when managers watch their workers work, employee productivity dips. The reason? Employees feel more compelled to put their best face forward and follow all corporate policies to a T.
The qualititative part of Bernstein's study, which embedded some of his Harvard students at a Chinese manufacturing plant, showed that workers were keenly aware of the paradox. As the Working Knowledge article details:
First the embeds were quietly shown "better ways" of accomplishing tasks by their peers--a "ton of little tricks" that "kept production going" or enabled "faster, easier, and/or safer production." Then they were told "whenever the [customers/managers/leaders] come around, don't do that, because they'll get mad."
The quantitative element, meanwhile, showed just what kind of an effect a little bit of privacy between employees and managers could enable. In examining 32 assembly lines over five months, Bernstein found that at organizations that kept a curtain up between workers and managers, productivity increased by 10 to 15 percent.
Bernstein's paper, which won the 2013 Best Published Paper award in two separate divisions of the Academy of Management, provides some takeaways.
To some extent, it should remind leaders that sometimes you just need to let your workers work. If you're going to stress transparency at your organization, which by many rights you should, accept that it's a two-way street. If you want greater productivity, loosen up your policies or don't worry so much if they're broken. As one commenter on the Working Knowledge article puts it, "It's called 'delegation': i.e., living with the fact that others may do things differently from you, while still being productive."
There's another side to that equation. Your policies might be in place for a reason. If so, recognize that asking for higher productivity might require cutting corners that are better left uncut.