What a mechanical shark can teach us about the importance of transparency

Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s big break as a director. The film which catapulted him in the superstar category of directors and yet it nearly never happened. The reason for this was Bruce. Bruce was the name of the mechanical shark playing the main character from the film. Bruce was also expensive and late. This meant filming had to start without the star of the film and when the shark diva did show up, its first act was to sink to the bottom of the bay. This left Spielberg with a problem — how do you shoot a shark movie without the shark? (for a much more detailed account this is a great read).

In the end he opted for the now-iconic low shots over the water and menacing music. It turns out this is much more terrifying than any number of mechanical sharks because our brain fills in whatever gaps are there with the worst thing it can imagine. The rest is movie history and led to techniques which have influenced every maker of horror movies to this day.

The same thing happens to us at work. When we’re aware that things are happening but not what they are then we start to worry. If there’s low trust or we’re still building trust then it’s easy for those worries to be formed of the worst things we can imagine. We tell ourselves a story to explain whatever partial information (or hearsay we have) and ascribe motives to the people who are in the know. Imagine that your boss tells you that they’d like to have a meeting with you tomorrow afternoon and leaves it at that. It’s likely that you’ll spend the next day wondering what it’s about up to and including whether you’re about to be fired. Our mind fills in the gaps.

This is why transparency is so important. It’s also why making a habit of transparency builds sufficient trust so that when it really is confidential (and there will be things you legally can’t share) that the resulting angst is modulated against the backdrop of previous behaviour. You build trust by sharing things, by being upfront and specific about what you’re doing and the underlying context. Your boss saying they’d like to catch up tomorrow to get your thoughts on a project is a very different experience to just saying they’d like to catch up.

Our fight flight reaction is also triggered when there’s a large status imbalance. Now imagine that instead of your boss, the person saying they wanted to meet you tomorrow was the CEO of the company. I will be blunt— any CEO which does this without investing in context is enacting harm against the person in their company. When we don’t share information we’re causing anxiety — anxiety over time leads to all manner of stress related problems.

Lack of transparency can also feel like social exclusion. And studies show that the stress caused by social exclusion can be worse that being directly bullied. If you’re in an underrepresented group then it will also make you feel even less welcome wherever you are. That’s right, if you want an inclusive environment and you aren’t transparent then you’re also failing at diversity and inclusion.

I worked at a company that refused to share their diversity numbers internally. This was crazy because anyone who could write code could pull this information directly from the internal employee lookup system. The underlying reason wasn’t bad intent — it was that people didn’t feel comfortable to have the discussion that would arise out of publishing the numbers. It turns out middle aged white dudes aren’t comfortable talking about diversity or privilege. Net result — everyone assumed they were hiding bad news. Trust was eroded which made it even harder for leaders to get things done. People left because they didn’t feel welcome. Not sharing the numbers also meant people didn’t really hold themselves to account for the situation. So nothing changed.

Another fun fact that comes from this is that sharing bad news is treating people like adults. If you treat people like children they tend to respond as children. If you trust people with information, even when it’s uncomfortable for you, then they will repay that trust. Yes, there will be exceptions but if you, as a leader are hiding information, then you cannot be surprised if people follow the behaviour you’re role modelling and hide bad news from you in return. Taking the chance to trust someone with bad news is difficult — but if we don’t we harm our culture and eventually create environments where people burnout.

So, what can we do about it?

  1. Honesty is the best policy. A friend’s mum said “if you tell one lie you’ve got to tell a thousand”. Yet, people often become adept at telling each other what they think they need to hear to get the response they want. This is a terrible instance of short-termism. If you do this don’t expect your working relationships to stay healthy for long.
  2. Share when there’s uncertain. One of the most common ways we get it wrong is we don’t want to share until things are certain. This creates a vacuum in which people tell themselves potentially harmful stories to explain what’s happening. It’s better to share your thinking (this also helps people grow and empathise with the grey areas you’re working in) than disappear from sight.
  3. Admit when you’ve got it wrong (and why). Retrospectives and postmortems are not tools to hold people to account. They’re tools which help them grow. Model this behaviour yourself.
  4. Context is king. No private design documents. Everyone should be able to discover and contribute to what you’re working on. Be proactive at sharing this so people have the opportunity to see things. If you’re lacking context it’s ok to ask. In the example above you could ask your manager “what did you want to talk about?”

You can also watch out for some common antipatterns:

  • Hearing second hand that something is happening which affects someone. Examples of this might be a decision which affects your project that you heard of mentioned offhand. One thing I struggled with at Google was that decisions were taken in Mountain View which affected my teams and I’d only find out in the morning.
  • Meetings without an agenda. Particularly when scheduled by someone senior. At best people may turn up who don’t need to be there. At worst we create fear.
  • Last minute all hands meetings. Because nothing says we’re all getting fired like a large meeting set up at short notice.
  • Long feedback cycles for performance. If you only find out how well you’re doing every six months (or worse) then it’s hard to feel secure about your place in the world. Break it down into more regular catch ups.
  • Emails out of hours. We all get FOMO — worrying that something might be happening makes us anxious. Anxiety makes us sick. If there’s regular discussion or decisions happening at the weekend then people either give up their weekends or suffer them.

One of the ways high trust environments is that people take the chance to share uncomfortable news with each other. If this behaviour is not being role modelled from the top then it tends to die out. Not only does a lack of transparency harm the culture and dynamic or organisations — it also harms the health of people who are a part of them. So, if you’re a leader, remember your job is to take the mechanical shark out of the water. Because, let’s face it, a couple of tons of juddering plastic and tubing is is no way as terrifying as what we can conjure in the darkest recesses of our minds.