The Transparency Paradox: How Transparency Can Force Your Best Employees to Hide

i love lucy chocolate assembly line to illustrate transparency paradox

The rule is one operator per station. But when nobody’s watching, there might 17 people for 13 stations on the assembly line at one mobile phone manufacturing plant in Southern China.

When managers comes around, though, they’ll see 13 operators, one for each station, exactly as prescribed by the leaders. Even with company values like learning and continuous improvement, this plant’s employees scrambles to hide exactly the kinds of refinements and creativity that management seeks.

Transparency is often touted as a vital ingredient for the best teams. And it’s true. For people to move fast and think for themselves, they need ready access to the information they need to do their job. Failing to provide a foundation of common knowledge and creating an uneven distribution of information opens the door for inefficiency and unhealthy power imbalances.

But the transparency paradox arises when there’s no trust and autonomy. Actually, it’s more like counterproductive monitoring — one-sided visibility to benefit the manager’s curiosity rather than equip the employees to do their best work.

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How to Trick Yourself into Making Real Progress

BillyMills_Crossing_Finish_Line_1964Olympics

Progress motivates like no other method.

Thanks to rigorous research by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, authors of the aptly titled The Progress Principle, we know that it’s not money, fame, or fear that drives us to do our best work. Instead, it’s making progress on meaningful work that’s key for staying motivated, productive, and creative.

Even small steps count. Events and experiences that seem trivial or take mere minutes help to build that sense of progress, whether it’s having a constructive chat with a coworker about how your project’s going, a particularly positive customer interaction, or fixing a paragraph in your report.

Progress is so alluring that even the illusion of forward steps increases your drive — which means you might not be taking full advantage of how progress motivates to kick-start your productivity.

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The Paradox of Why Top Performers Fail Under Pressure

performance pressure

You’ve seen it happen before. Maybe you’ve even experienced the stomach-churning, brain-in-hyperdrive feeling yourself. Whether it’s the professional missing those easy free throws on the basketball court or the professional sweating through an important presentation in the conference room — even the best performers choke under pressure.

The expertise and skillful command of these bright talents are exactly what should be helping them thrive in such conditions. All that hard work that brought them to where they are now should help them kick it up a notch and spur amazing feats. Instead, it’s these outstanding capabilities that set them up for failure in the clutch.

While star performers should be best equipped to handle pressure, the interesting paradox is that they might be the most prone to buckling.

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The Essential Investment that Companies Aren’t Making

continuing education at Apple

It’s a super secret Apple product — incredibly polished, meticulously planned, and the result of a massive investment on the part of the company.

No, it’s not the latest yet-to-be-announced iPhone.

It’s Apple University, Apple’s internal training program that runs year-round, features courses created and taught by full-time faculty, and boasts as its dean Joel Podolny, the former dean of the Yale School of Management. “Even the toilet paper in the bathrooms is really nice,” one employee reported.

Apple University dwarfs what most companies offer their employees for internal training, and it shows in employee growth, retention, and fierce dedication to the company’s unique culture and vision. For Apple, it’s an essential investment in the people that make up the company and its future.

Unfortunately, this kind of people investment is all too rare today. According to ManpowerGroup, 36% of global employers report difficulty finding candidates with the higher-tech skills that the modern economy requires. Yet the blame, according to Professor Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, falls on employers for failing to training for employees on how to fill those higher-skilled roles — and that’s become a huge problem for companies and job-seekers alike.

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Stop Spreading Busyness Like the Flu

busyness at train station

Busyness has become such a sign of our times that there’s a trend in architecture of drawing blurry people on the move for office project designs. Apparently it’s a visual that clients can identify with “on an emotional level.”

While you might recognize yourself in that blurry state of being, consider how limiting busyness can be as a state of mind. Since you start coming across as irritable, impatient, and anxious, you start to close yourself off from others. It’s hard to connect with someone who’s a physical or mental blur that can’t sit still for a minute and feels like there’s no time.

One of the toughest part of falling into the busy trap is that you become preoccupied with your own busyness, and you might not realize that you’re spreading your busyness affliction to everyone around you.

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Don’t Preserve Startup Culture in Your Growing Company

startup culture like peter pan

Like seeing your kids off to college for the very first time, it’s always a bit jolting for startup founders who see their company grow beyond the plucky “move fast and break things” startup culture of its youth. It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic about that exciting age when everything was new.

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Phil Libin has seen his company Evernote shoot up from a small startup to a billion-dollar company in six short years. Growing the Evernote team from just tens of people to 400, Libin worried over what such fast growth would do to the young company culture.

When he talked to Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO, who’d seen his own company grow precipitously, he asked him how to preserve the company culture that had helped get Evernote to such a successful start. Costolo’s answer was completely unexpected.

Don’t, Costolo said.

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Why Getting Personal Matters for Getting Professional

karma team

Even if transparency is one of your official organizational values, how do you actually make that come true?

Karma has a company culture of openness and sharing, one that reflects its mission to make connecting to the internet easier for everyone. That philosophy of accessibility permeates the company — whether in sharing their journey with their customers, providing weekly — yes, weekly — updates to their investors, or how they get stuff done together.

Company culture isn’t what is written on a poster or slide deck but what happens day-by-day. And what the Karma team has figured out is that transparency doesn’t just happen by itself. The kind of information-sharing it requires depends on people’s willingness to be open with each other, day in and day out — and one of the best ways to do it is tell each other about their day.

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Bad Managers Talk, Good Managers Write

The exemplary manager is often shown as the outgoing guy that gives his team pep talks and high fives. In truth, though, that stereotype couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To three highly effective, seasoned, and successful executives, being a good talker isn’t just overvalued, it can actually be detrimental. Rather, there’s a subtle, often-overlooked ability that’s one of the most vital skills you can have as a manager — the ability to write.

why good managers write

“Written communication to engineering is superior [to verbal communication] because it is more consistent across an entire product team, it is more lasting, it raises accountability.” 

Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz

When managers write, you create work product — white papers, product requirement documents, FAQs, presentations — that lasts and is accessible to everyone in the organization. From marketing to sales to QA to engineering, everyone has a document off which they can work and consult.

The upshot is that the manager also takes public responsibility for what happens when the rest of the team executes on the point of view taken by the documents. That ratchets up accountability through the organization.

To Horowitz, the distinction between written and verbal communication is stark and, in fact, it’s what separates the wheat from the chaff. Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility. And so, good managers write, while “[b]ad product managers voice their opinion verbally and lament … the ‘powers that be’.”

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The Most Charismatic Leaders Are People You’ve Never Heard of

evil queen from snow white

When you’re in charge, you get used enjoying feeling like the linchpin. Take co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, Rich Sheridan, who used to think: “I liked being the person everyone came to…. There was glory to it. I felt like the smartest guy in the room.”

Back when he was a VP at a company called Interface Systems, he brought his eight-year-old daughter with him to work one day. Her candid observation about his job ended up completely transforming how he thought about management. When she told her dad that he must be very important — because “[a]ll day long… people came in here and asked you to make a decision for them. And you made a decision, and they went on their way” — that threw Sheridan for a loop.

He realized how this style of managing people created a system of bottlenecks and he began to conceive of the right way to manage as a decentralized, bottom-up approach of decision-making. Menlo Innovations now runs as a bossless organization, because being the smartest guy in the room was a liability.

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How Good Enough is Actually Optimal

Ten years ago, Jon Bell, now a designer at Twitter, told his wife that he’d be happy with how much he was making for the rest of his life.

I didn’t make much at the time. But that marked the day I began trying to fight back the impulse for “more” and instead try to discover how “enough” feels.

The conventional wisdom is that to be successful, you have to be really hungry for it, never content with mere sufficiency and outdoing everyone else. Surprisingly, Jon’s philosophy of aiming for enough is a better approach.

It all comes down to whether you’re a maximizer or a satisficer. A maximizer yearns for perfection — making the best decision after weighing all the choices while a satisficer goes for “good enough.” This doesn’t mean you have to settle for lower standards — but you do prevent yourself from “trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.”

Maximizer vs Satisficer list

That’s why high achievers fall into the peculiar trap of getting mentally caught up in what you haven’t done — there’s always something else to be working on because it feels like, the more you do, the more you gain an edge. But focusing too hard on maximizing your productivity and choices can come at an ultimate cost to your time, health, and happiness.

Ironically, maximizing doesn’t lead to the optimal result.

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