What does “transparency” even mean?

The other day, a friend exploded through my door with this rant: “You can’t tell us that we are supposed to be transparent in our operations, then refuse to share our project plan with your own boss! In the same conversation!”

This seems to happen quite a lot related to the word “transparency,” doesn’t it? I think there are two very important but different things going on in this situation. First, the boss has failed to share her definition of the word “transparent” with the team.

“Transparency” can be a particularly troubling word because of its moral and ethical implications. How are you supposed to know when and what you should share, and with whom? What are the consequences if you don’t share – or if you do? Are there different layers of transparency, like “public” and “top secret?” It is such a fantastic irony that the word transparency can cause so much confusion!

Notice also that transparency is a buzzword, which just adds further complexity to the situation. Buzzwords are often sprinkled into conversations without any context whatsoever. People think these words make them sound a little more “in the know,” because the phrase showed up on a hot list of corporate values. But a general understanding of terms on a hot list does not equal general understanding of a definition of the term.

Define your buzzwords!

If you really want a team to embrace and use a buzzword like “transparency,” you owe it to them to define it. Give examples of when it will and won’t apply to the project or team. Instead of using it as a noun, use it as an action phrase: “Please be more transparent with your results. I’d like you to share them openly with our internal partners and start a discussion.” Or, “We don’t need to be as transparent with these data. Make sure our staff has access to the research, but don’t make a big effort to share it beyond our immediate team.”

Second, the boss has failed to recognize that actions speak louder than words.

It is easy to dismiss conflicting behavior like this as spite, malice, or bad judgment. However, in my work as a facilitator with countless groups, I have come to see it from a different perspective. The much more likely scenario is this: the person who says one thing but does another doesn’t even realize they are doing it. They don’t connect the contradictory behavior back to the phrase they just uttered.

Failing to recognize a contradictory behavior doesn’t excuse the habit, of course. Every team member has the right to ask for clarity to reduce anxiety.

A caution here: it can be easy to see the boss as villain, perpetrator, or bad guy (or gal). As humans, we love labeling someone the hero and someone else the villain! It seems only natural to blame the person in charge and dump all the responsibility at her door. But to do that would imply that my friend – or any one of us – is completely powerless in this situation, which is simply not the case. While it might be uncommon to speak up in a situation like this, it is possible to do.

Ask for clarity.

The next time someone uses a phrase or word you suspect is out of context or misused, ask for more information. You can say, “Sue, I heard you use the word ‘transparent’ twice in the last couple of minutes. Would you please clarify what you mean by transparent? Were you referring to a specific project or person? Is this a new value our team should adopt?”

What do you do, then, if Sue replies with, “Just be more transparent! We have been told to be more transparent!” Since Sue’s answer does not add any information to the conversation, you can restate the question. Try saying, “I thought that might be the case. Do you know why we were given that directive? Can you give us some more information, or can you ask for clarity? If we are supposed to do this, we really need to know how and when to apply it to our work.”

For a variety of valid reasons, many people are not able to speak up in a group setting to ask for this kind of clarity. A good alternative is this sequence:

1. Find a time, as quickly as possible following the meeting, to talk privately with the person who made the comment.  This will allow you to get the answers you need before the details of the meeting fade from memory.

2. Follow up by sending an email to that person to make sure you understand their answer correctly.

3. With Sue’s (your boss’s) permission, you can send that email to your team (or meeting participants). Your newfound clarity will benefit everyone.

Seeking clarity is not easy, especially if your team traditionally ignores confusing behaviors. But in the interest of transparency, don’t give up!

Help us Help YOU

What other phrases are causing confusion or concern for your team? Leave a comment below to help us build a list of buzzwords to bust.


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  1. Gary Monti

    “Vulnerability” is the word that comes to mind reading this blog. “Transparency,” as you point out, Kay, is anything but a standalone word.
    Asking where the boundary lies is the best thing to do. This can get complicated when looking at your garden-variety organizational situation, e.g., the project plan may look good but there could be a huge amount of animosity between the functional department heads who are contributing resources. So, the question would be, “Do we limit ourselves to the technical project plan or do we get into stakeholder analysis.”
    As you say, there needs to be a spelling out of just what “transparency” means.
    – Gary

    • Kay Coughlin

      Gary, I really appreciate that you pointed out the vulnerability of teams forced to use poorly-defined terms. As always, the place to start is with the simple (but not easy) act of recognizing the root of the confusion. I agree that knowing where the boundaries lie is also a critical parameter. Leaders who welcome questions from their teams are much more likely to relieve the anxiety caused by misunderstood terms and boundaries.