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What’s the Difference Between Transparency and Oversharing?

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What happens when a seasoned manager doesn’t know the difference between being transparent and breaching confidentiality?

In a nutshell, you get this: Distrust, demotivation, and an epic failure in leadership.

ConfidentialityI am an Information Technology Manager at a Fortune 100 firm. We recently made some significant changes in how our teams will get work done in 2015.  I was asked to objectively facilitate the many hours of work needed to get to a new organizational model.

I was thrilled at the opportunity to lead change and impact results!

Organization over Ego

When the work started on our new initiative, I was very impressed on the amount of sharing and openness our managers had toward making a major shift in software development.

Dialogue was open and people were engaged. The goal would to be less hierarchical and become more of a flat management structure.

With this new initiative, the change required moving people to co-located teams. This resulted in 30% of the employees having a new manager. And with this amount of change, you can expect that things didn’t always go smoothly.

Ego Takes Over

Unfortunately, when plans were on the drawing board and people were moved around on paper to new positions and reporting structures, the defensive walls started to build and lines of territory started to be drawn.

The professional maturity of each manager started to become clear. Some showed signs of professional maturity and dealt with things well, even if they felt inside that they had a big (and unfair) challenge ahead of them. While many others acted the opposite.

They were much less willing to work for a bigger picture and took a selfish stance.

 Organizational Nightmare

When the discussion moved to the skills and performance of the managers, senior staff sequestered for confidential discussions. The results from this was that we constructed the first hierarchy for the new organization.

And with the historic attitudes reigning, the new org-chart looked exactly like the current one.

  • We had one manager of managers
  • Several first line managers
  • And half a dozen senior individual contributors reporting to the director

What an OD nightmare!

Many members believed we could not get the change needed if we didn’t change the management structure so a flat, balanced organization model was recommended.

Maintaining the Status Quo

Believing that he was just being transparent, the manager with the majority of the organization under his control gave access of the confidential organizational structure options being considered to his first line managers.

This manager was too busy persuading people that his way was the right way that he failed to hear the recommendation was to flatten the organization; including his team.

He also shared with one of his direct reports a discussion that occurred during a closed meeting whether the manager was ready for the more complex role including the name of the staff member who raised the concern.

This was not being transparent. This was breaching confidentiality!

The Let Down

When it came down to the final staff meeting to finalize the new organization, the leader, in order to minimize thrash and too much change, kept the unbalanced organization model.

When the announcements started to roll out, managers who had seen the flat model and thought they would now be reporting directly to the leader of the organization were blindsided. The manager who was told of the confidential discussion confronted the senior staff member.

This not only destroyed the trust. but it also damaged the trust of the senior staff member with his peer. He believed he could raise a concern in a closed staff meeting and not have his confidence breached.

The Moral of the Story

Leaders are always more successful when they are transparent with the people they lead. When they provide the reason for change whether it be due to cost cutting, greater efficiency or because the industry has shifted and the organization needs to shift to remain successful.

However, breaching confidentiality to be transparent and not understanding the difference is a failure in leadership.

Sharing too much detail, including the details and hard discussions that have to happen for a decision to be made, is just poor judgement.

Leaders need to be aware of all of the conversations happening, not just focused on driving their own agenda. In this case, the miss and the failure resulted in several valuable people leaving the organization.

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