Several years ago at an HR conference, I heard a metaphor that illustrated the argument for transparency perfectly, and has stuck with me ever since. The speaker said telling employees to do their jobs without giving them the larger strategic context is like asking them to put together a puzzle without showing them the picture on the box: frustrating, inefficient, and purposeless. But give them the "box top" and voila, both morale and results improve

However, when it comes to company culture, it's all situational -- and there are certain instances where transparency is actually dangerous instead of inspiring.

Here are my two simple rules of thumb for determining whether transparency will be constructive in a given scenario.

1. Are there privacy considerations?

In order for people to feel safe at work -- and safety is a precursor to both job effectiveness and satisfaction -- they need to have an expectation of privacy. 

There's some information where the need for privacy is obvious, such as when it's about salary or status in a protected class. But I don't think it hurts to err on the side of privacy with any personal information, no matter how seemingly innocuous. After all, if it's not my information, it's not my call. 

When in doubt, ask an employee what they would be comfortable sharing or having shared on their behalf, and what they would prefer to have kept private -- and respect their wishes without asking for justification. 

Privacy is also a factor at the company level, especially concerning legal issues or in situations where sensitive information leaks could have a negative impact. It's generally best to keep mum when keeping compliant or afloat is at stake. 

2. Is more information going to be distracting and/or distressing?

Going back to the puzzle metaphor, transparency is helpful when it empowers people to do their jobs better and understand what they're driving toward. But sometimes senior leadership doesn't have the full picture on the "box top" mapped out yet. What then?

You don't have to have your strategy 100 percent baked in order to be transparent about it along the way. However, you should think twice before sharing partial information if you anticipate it's going to be a distraction or cause distress.  

In terms of distraction, ask yourself: 

  • Can people do anything productive with this information today or in the near-term (one-three months)? 

  • Will this context help them be better at their jobs today or in the near-term? 

If the answer to both questions is no, it might be better to hold off communication until you can answer "yes" to at least one. 

In terms of distress, tread lightly before being transparent about anything that will cause a strong emotional reaction. For example, maybe you know layoffs are ahead, or that raises aren't happening this year. In these situations, communication should only come when the decision is final, to avoid unnecessary dread (and with that said, leadership should finalize the decision ASAP, so people aren't kept in the dark). The kindest thing to do is communicate clearly and thoughtfully, and you can't achieve this until all the loose ends have been tied. 

The trend toward transparency at work isn't going away anytime soon. But if transparency still feels impractical or even scary, think of that box top. Are you actually causing more harm than good by keeping it to yourself? Try flipping it over, and see what happens to the puzzle -- you might just be pleasantly surprised.