About the Unspoken in Organisations

Openness, Transparency and Authenticity – What we loose when we give way to the impulse to select only the “good stuff”


When questioned about what I do I would like to be able to answer that I work with the unspoken.
But most people would be lost in this answer, since its vastness of meanings.

Whiting the ‘unspoken’ I consider a huge amount of dynamics, including negative polarities, which naturally arise within any collective and to which people aren’t so predispose to look at (resistance, sabotage, non-involvement, lack of meaning, inability to generate coherent collective action).

In my view the existence of this ‘unspoken’, is grounded in the assumption that those symptoms are intrinsically related with personal issues and that these should not be mixed with professional ones.

This idea of personal and professional being separated is one of the critical thought paradigms that we have collectively builded.

Just recently I’d been talking with a friend of mine about this topic and the irony that company managers ask for the best of their employees, which obviously requires the presence of the whole person. My best version implies my mental, my emotional and all parts of my best Self. But what we usually see is the tendency of employers and managers to select what they want from people best potential, they want to choose the “good stuff”, cause the rest is to much to deal with. Its messy, emotional, sometimes turbulent, uncertain and volatile.

Another good example of how we avoid to take this as a whole was brought to me when taking part of a group discussion in HBR discussion group in Linked in . The mobilising question was: “Is too much openness at work counterproductive?”. This question rose from a research about the real impact of openspace in companies’ productivity, touching also the subject of transparency.

Here is an excerpt of the article:

The Transparency Trap

“Transparency” is a watchword in management these days, and it’s easy to understand why. After all, if people conduct their work in plain view, won’t they be more open and accountable? Won’t they flag and fix problems more easily, and share information and their good ideas more freely?

That’s certainly what I expected to discover a few years ago, when I went in search of empirical evidence that transparency improves performance in organizations. But through rigorous field research and experiments, and observations by embedded researchers, I learned that it’s not that simple. My findings, which complement various studies on open workspaces (see “Balancing ‘We’ and ‘Me’” in this issue), suggest that more-transparent environments are not always better. Privacy is just as essential for performance.

My sharings within the group discussion were related with this assumption that we only want to deal with the “good stuff” and when we see the emergence of behaviours and patterns that collide with ‘what was supposed to happen’ the most common reaction is to supress, eliminate or suspend what we once thought was good to the collective.

I clustered the arguments in two main groups:

  1. Openness and transparency is necessary for better information flow, more coordination, more motivation, commitment,  and so on
  2. Openness and transparency are necessary, BUT there is the need to keep some secrecy for confidentiality reasons or to avoid agitation and noise among employees. ‘’There are things employees do not need to know’

Obviously I include myself in the 1st group, even if I understand and sense empathy for the hidden reasons beyond the 2nd group arguments. I believe these are felt, so I must consider them as ‘real’. Looking back at my career I must confess I’ve shared those arguments.

But this subject claims for deeper inquiring, it isn’t reasonable to limit our positioning in terms of being against it or for it.

The first question that comes to my mind is ‘why in the first instance do we decided it would be good to our company to adopt open-space and promote more transparency?’

The answer to this question, its strength and coherence are of extremely importance to protect us from becoming attached to the strategy and tools we choose to achieve that first main reason. We tend to become so obsessed in getting those strategies successfully implemented that we forget our initial goal.

If things don’t go as planned this should be seen as an invitation to fine-tune our strategy, and within the theme of the HBR article, it is not a confirmation that people are not prepared to deal with higher levels of transparency, maybe its more about managers and decision-makers not being prepared to deal with what’s dissonant from the initial assumptions, or what crashes against the prevalent status quo, or even mostly its about managers forgetting that change isn’t an event but rather a process that requires continuous adaptive action.

Back to HBR discussion forum, the 2nd group suggested that too much openness and working in openspace environments inhibits people, invades their sense of privacy, others may feel pressure by seeing the way they work exposed. One never-ending list of valid arguments which according with the research impact on employee’s productivity.

All right. I accept all these arguments. But it rises another question in me.

Does this mean that in face of dissonant feedback (dissonant to our expectations) we should take the solution of suppressing or reducing the degree of openness and transparency?

I don’t think so. I believe more in the value of helping people to deal with these thoughts and feelings, probably rooted in other unspoken motives and intrinsically related to the absence of space to bring personal observations, perceptions and feelings into to the professional world. Me and many other facilitators, change enablers believe we need to help foster collective support to allow individual authenticity to do its work as a crucial element of organisational learning.

We entered in the field of authenticity, and the individual capacity to assume, own and express their personal experience, in the form of thoughts, emotions, needs, beliefs and all other processes involved in individual perception.

Creativity and innovation are dependent on the existence of freedom to express and put individual perception at the service of collective goals.

Usually the ‘unspoken’ only comes to surface on coffee-break conversations between closed colleagues, at lunchtime, after work drink, or in case of being ‘lucky enough to have a cool boss’.

There is a lot of useful information in the ‘unspoken’. It emerges from our systems dynamics and constitutes feedback from the systems participants. Staying open to this side of our system dynamics is gaining the opportunity to learn faster and take the necessary adaptive action towards the initial goal behind the decision to increase openness and transparency.

So returning to the question ‘Does this mean that in face of ‘dissonant feedback’ we should take the solution of suppressing or reducing the degree of openness and transparency?’ I finish this post we these last questions:

What would be the desired impact of gathering your employees to think, talk and act on ‘dissonant feedbacks’?

How does this possibility sound to you?

What if you cold start to hold regular open-dialogue sessions and increase the success of your company strategies to increase openness and transparency? Would you take that decision?

If so, please contact us so that we can help you and offer support to take this next step.