Calling for some compassion with our transparency

Weaponizing secrets makes people reluctant to share. We need an even-handed approach to transparency.
212 readers like this.
How far should openness extend?

Transparency is key in an open organization. This isn't a controversial statement. But is too much transparency in an organization possible?

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels thinks so. In a Washington Post op-ed, Daniels describes what he sees as transparency that goes "too far." For him, that means reaching a point at which the costs of acting transparently begin outweighing the benefits—in other words, when transparency hinders rather than helps a project. For example, Daniels argues that open records laws encourage people to avoid leaving a written trace of their discussions, which ultimately reduces the beneficial effects of transparency for the public. While I suspect Mr. Daniels may be overstating the case, he raises an important point: Transparency for transparency's sake is no virtue. Transparency is a way of acting, a particular manner in which we work to achieve some greater goal.

That way of acting is critical to maintaining the organizational agility that helps us stay ahead of challenges. But while we often speak of agility as it relates to actions, we rarely apply the term to beliefs.

In truly agile environments, where situations change unexpectedly and today's best practices become tomorrow's "legacy thinking," positions you once held may no longer be valid. And when those positions get recorded, they can be weaponized.

Weaponized transparency occurs when someone uses information about a person as an argument against them. It doesn't matter that something was knowingly made transparent; what matters here is how that something is used.

Need an example? Just watch what happens to any politician who takes a position contrary to one they held in the past. Weaponized transparency can deter openness, so it poses a real problem to open organizations.

So what's the solution to balancing transparency and agility in an open organization?

Not becoming less transparent. Instead, we should foster "compassionate transparency."

Transparency for transparency's sake is no virtue. Transparency is a way of acting, a particular manner in which we work to achieve some greater goal.

What is compassionate transparency? Simply put, compassionate transparency is the moderated level of transparency that allows members of an organization to bring forth ideas and engage in a healthy dialogue about them without fear of having past positions used to shame them or arguing against the ultimate decision used to undermine the end result. It means fostering a culture where attempts to weaponize transparency are quickly tamped down, not only by those higher in the hierarchy, but by peers as well. Other members of the organization step in to say "we don't do that here" when someone attempts to use transparency as a weapon.

The case for compassion

Compassionate transparency involves respecting individuals' agency as it pertains to their own story and information. Some things—like the contents of personnel files and records of employees' private discussions with their managers—are poor candidates for transparency in most cases. They can include details of private lives (illnesses, relationship trouble, and the like) that are no one's business. Or they may include feedback that, if weaponized, could cause problems for the person or the organization. We'd like to think that there's none of that in our organization, but any sufficiently large group of people will have to deal with base political maneuvering (even if we don't necessarily start hurling negative campaign ads).

Compassionate transparency can also mean allowing some degree of secrecy from the outside. An open organization may be very transparent internally, but keep some information "within the family." Daniels makes an argument for this in his article:

There is a reason the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was held privately and no official minutes were kept. Men who argued fiercely against certain provisions preserved their ability to accept second-best outcomes, and to go home and advocate ratification of the overall agreement.

Where the line gets drawn is not always as straightforward as it seems. Do the shareholders of a publicly traded company get the same level of access to information as employees? Do citizens get to see everything government employees do? In the abstract, these may be easy questions to answer, but the reality is often more messy than that. Considering the mess and striking a balance that leads to the best possible outcome is the core of compassionate transparency.

Read this next

What to read next
User profile image.
Ben Cotton is a meteorologist by training, but weather makes a great hobby. Ben works as the Fedora Program Manager at Red Hat. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Find him on Twitter (@FunnelFiasco) or at


Great article Ben. This reminds me of a recent Planet Money episode about mugshots in the United States and the patchwork of state and local laws and regulations designed to stop them from being used in automated extortion schemes. It's a look at the companies abusing open data to force individuals who have been arrested (even if found innocent or not even charged with a crime) hundreds of dollars for the "privilege" of having their mugshot removed from the internet. In an era where everyone gets Googled before they get hired, it's a really upsetting example of the conflict between fundamental rights and when openness can be weaponized against individuals.

Great article and very timely too with weaponized transparency being the modus operandi of politicians and the media in particular. We all need room for growth. What I believed and wrote yesterday may not be what I believe and write today.

I think your example of a politician taking a different position and having this pointed out is precisely a great benefit of transparency. In this case, the onus is on the politician to acknowledge this and explain it. The answer is not to attack those who pointed it out.
A greater problem we have now is what we might call mercantile transparency, where some organization with access to private information sells this without getting permission or compensating the object of the information.

Thanks, Greg. You're right that having a politician explain their change is a benefit with a caveat. If it's "you previously thought X and now your position is Y. Why did you change?" that's clearly a good thing. If the approach is "you previously thought X and now your position is Y so clearly you don't believe Y and you're just pandering" is a weaponized form of transparency that doesn't help anyone. Transparency is a tool, and like any tool it's how we use it that matters.

In reply to by Greg P

Ben, thanks for showing that there's another side to transparency - how it is received. I can see how that touches on the other values of The Open Organisation. De-weaponising and fostering compassionate transparency could come in the form of Community as you mentioned "we don't do that here". Through Collaboration "what can we learn here?" Through Inclusivity "how does this add to / change our understanding?" Or through Adaptability "how should we change now?"

Great topic that certainly leads to a lot of other implications - as other commenters have mentioned.

Thanks, Michael, I'm glad you like it. You're right about how this touches on other Open Org values. I hadn't even considered some of those angles.

In reply to by mdoyle

Ben, you've created a thought-provoking article. I have mixed feelings on tempering transparency, though. I heartily agree with the concept of compassionate transparency and not using it as a weapon, but as reporter covering government entities for the last 12 years, I've found that every time someone suggests that having less transparency will make things work better, it turns out to be when we need more transparency to see why they don't want us seeing what is going on.

Thanks, Jason! I agree that when people ask for less transparency, it's often a red flag that *more* transparency is required. So maybe the issue isn't so much the degree of transparency, but how we use the transparency we have.

In reply to by Jason Phillips 03 (not verified)

It would be informative for the article to include realistic tech-company or open-source-project case studies about what kinds of historical information be "moderated" (unmentionable?). There's no need to take time with items like personnel records or such, which are obviously off limits.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Download the Open Organization Leaders Manual

The nature of work is changing. So the way we lead must change with it.