20 Things That Prevent Transparency in the Workplace and How to Fix Them

transparency in the workplace

You’ve likely heard “What gets measured gets improved.” Or the negative respinning of the first: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Regardless of who said it — Peter Drucker, some claim, may have ripped off 19th-century physicist Lord Kelvin, who might’ve ripped off 16th-century renaissance man Rheticus — the sentiment rings just as true in the digital age as it did in the 20th, 19th, and 16th centuries. In today’s fast-paced business environment, visibility into the performance of teams, often via reporting, is key to fixing issues and driving team efforts toward company goals. However, the fact that 84% of companies are failing at digital transformation reveals a widespread disconnect between aspirations and the ability to track and guide company efforts toward those aspirations.

If Peter Drucker (or Lord Kelvin or Rheticus) is to be believed, these failures undoubtedly stem, in part, from an inability to see and measure business performance. Despite every enterprise exercising reporting in some form or another, those reports are not translating into better business decisions. Obviously, better transparency in the workplace is not easy to obtain.

What makes business transparent so difficult to achieve? You can blame a host of ever-present influences — some new, some old, some driven by culture, others driven by technology or process, and so on. If your company's visibility is lacking, consider the following list of the 20 most common things that prevent transparency in the workplace and learn how to fix them.

1. Shame

Maybe you’ve witnessed this unfortunate situation: a business leader sets an audacious goal in one KPI, perhaps on a major initiative, but when the initiative tanks, he sneakily switches KPIs at the last minute. For the business leader, everything comes out smelling like roses, but it can’t erase the detriment this shame-driven number-fudging does to the enterprise. The leader’s reputation is saved, but at what cost?

Data analytics author Meta Brown calls shame the biggest barrier to the use of analytics and proper reporting in business — and the hardest to overcome. “When you commit to measurement and testing, you’re also committing to admit that some of your decisions go wrong,” she says. “That’s a risk many executives aren’t willing to take.” Experts say the same goes for all individuals, regardless of the level they occupy in an enterprise.

The solution: build automated reporting. From the C-suite down to every team, companies can take the shame and face-saving out of reporting by creating a culture where conversations about low performance are focused on solving problems, not on destroying individuals’ credibility or careers. Businesses can further prevent shame-driven tampering by investing in tools that automate the gathering and reporting of data.

2. Unconscious bias

Even in the era of artificial intelligence, unconscious biases will continue to skew pretty much everything. The blog for the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC says:

Unconscious biases in the workplace can stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts, and unknowingly shape an organization’s culture. Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews. It also affects who gets hired, promoted, and developed — and this unwittingly undermines an organization’s culture.”

Bias inevitably affects business results and how they are reported, in ways that are often invisible to the person doing it. For instance, because of an affinity for Employee A, a manager may subconsciously downplay or omit data that would highlight the employee’s low performance. On the other hand, negative feelings toward Employee B could result in a overly negative report of the employee’s performance. It takes very little imagination, then, to understand how this could render reports completely unreliable.

The solution: create bias awareness training. Experts recommend that business leaders make all employees aware of the most common types of bias (Ex: the halo effect or the perception bias) via training. This problem can also be countered by automated reporting. The less ability humans have to tamper with the gathering and reporting of data, the less human bias will taint reports.

3. Low expectations

At many enterprises, reporting is treated as just another box to be checked off. Managers can be heard to say things like, “Just get some numbers together so we have something to report.” At some companies, managers even regularly imply to their direct reports that no one is actually going to read their reports. No wonder, then, that employees respond with skepticism or frustration. Lacking the vision that their report is going to aid their leaders in making critical business decisions, and inundated with other more pressing demands, they produce shoddy reports that may or may not resemble reality — reports that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. In this case, the enterprise is suffering from an obvious disconnect between the work being done and the company’s top objectives. They don’t understand the bridge that reporting provides.

The solution: give a new vision of reporting. Re-train your workforce — especially managers — on the importance of reporting to the company’s decision-making process. Audit current reporting practices to determine how they can be improved to more clearly align with this vision. Also highly recommended is investing in technology that supports such an effort, enabling managers and employees to clearly connect their tasks and reports with specific business objectives.

4. Lack of buy-in

“People at every level ... resist using and being judged by measures they believe to be inaccurate or irrelevant to good outcomes,” says Meta and then acknowledges, “These concerns are often entirely rational.” This is why the unilateral imposition of reporting standards on a workforce often results in poor participation and sketchy reporting. As with any change process, unless team members see the value in an action, they will either drag their feet or fight it outright.

The solution: create employee-based report creation. Consider taking your biggest naysayers and putting them in charge of developing better, more effective reporting processes and tools. Require them to vet these with diverse groups. This is a strategy straight from the change management playbook that has been proven to turn opponents into champions, garner broad buy-in across the board, and boost adoption.

5. Accidental project managers

Meet the “accidental project manager” — those individuals who have been thrust into project management roles without the benefit of project management training. According to a recent CareerBuilder study, this describes 58% of managers, while Workfront’s own 2018-19 State of Work Report found that 57% of knowledge workers fit into this category. Unfortunately, this lack of formal training has direct negative effects on the quality of transparency and reporting around an enterprise’s projects. Accidental project managers are not versed in the best practices that would keep stakeholders in the loop. To make matters worse, the accidental project manager also executes a good portion of the work themselves. When things pile up, reporting and other visibility-building tasks are often the first things to go. It all culminates in an environment where every individual work manager holds his or her own secrets. For a leader trying to get the 10,000-foot view of what’s going on, this is a reporting rat’s nest.

The solution: build a work management structure. While project manager certification is certainly an option, many companies find that new software options come with PM best practices built in, providing much-needed structure to accidental project managers. In these tools, the regular reporting of project statuses is often automated, so embattled accidental project managers can focus on project execution, while leaders get the updates they need to stay informed.

6. Remote/dispersed work teams

Remote work is on the rise. One Gallup survey found that, from 2012 to 2016 alone, the percentage of remote employees jumped from 15% to 20%. The 2018 Future Workplace Report discovered that the majority of companies (63%) have remote workers, and the number of hiring managers who expect even more remote employees in the next decade is 5x larger than those that don’t. For all the positives this trend brings to enterprises (e.g., a broader talent pool and better work-life balance) it can also wreak havoc on workplace visibility. According to the most recent State of Work Report:

This lack of transparency between team members and between employee and the company at large can only be exacerbated by the increasingly dispersed nature of the modern enterprise team.

"It's on you, as their leader, to help the members of the group connect the dots, get to know you and each other and feel like part of a team, working together toward a common purpose.” — Melissa Lamson, global leadership consultant

The solution: give team members context. Since remote work is not going anywhere any time soon, restoring transparency to the dispersed team falls on team leaders. “As the leader, it's your job to provide the context for the team,” says global leadership consultant Melissa Lamson. “As part of creating context, set clear and measurable performance goals and make sure your team understands how those goals figure into the project and the organization's plans as a whole. It's on you, as their leader, to help the members of the group connect the dots, get to know you and each other and feel like part of a team, working together toward a common purpose.” While this applies to all teams, Melissa says, team leaders of geographically dispersed teams must make this a special focus. Tools that enable cloud-based collaboration and access to information should be included in this effort.

7. The Hollywood model of work

Increasingly, as enterprise teams work in a more agile fashion — assembling the right talent and functional expertise from a mix of full-time employees and freelancers alike and then disassembling at the conclusion of the project — they have come to resemble a Hollywood production, rather than than your typical office team. Hence the title coined by one NY Times writer, “The Hollywood Model of Work.” This trend is built of a need for greater speed and agility, but it is also not exactly conducive to enterprise transparency. As team members come and go, with differing roles and responsibilities every time, reporting processes can become chaotic. After all, reporting and other visibility functions are usually things that established teams figure out over time.

The solution: buy a company-wide work management platform. Workfront’s corporate marketing director Heather Hurst explains that introducing some solidity to what can feel like a very fluid environment can go a long way in fostering the productivity, structure, and transparency that every successful team needs. Heather explains:

“It helps to start with as much common ground as you can, which is where a company-wide work management platform (or operational system of record) comes in. When you start with work processes that are streamlined and supported by technology that’s familiar to all involved, you can focus more energy on working well with the other personalities on the team. Ramp-up time is diminished, and projects can hit the ground running with ease.”

8. Cross-functional teams

Closely related to, and overlapping with, the concept of the Hollywood Model of Work is the challenge of creating transparency in cross-functional teams. When teams contain members from different departments, members often come to the table with totally different tools, processes, and systems of record, raising the possibility of work information being stored and even duplicated across the tools and systems of multiple organizations. Throw in a partner organization and this gets even scarier. In such an environment, how are leaders to get reliable visibility into what is happening in that team?

The solution: develop a single reporting thread. Again, a common platform is the ideal way to bring common ground to a diverse group and provide a single reporting thread for the team. When Australian fixtures and fitting supplier GWA Group Limited faced prioritization, supply chain, and marketing issues between its three local factories and nine distribution centers, the company deployed Workfront’s work management platform to give cross-functional teams a single place to organize their work. The result was total transparency and more discipline across the supply chain and during product launches.

9. Increased pace of business

When leadership coaching firm Zenger Folkman asked a pool of 1,600 leaders if they were often expected to “move faster and do more,” 80% responded affirmatively. In fact, the urgency and frequency of those messages has been rising year over year. One Harvard Business Review study found that the average executive in the 2010s receives about 30,000 “hurry up” messages per year, compared to the 1,000 “hurry up” message received annually by executives in the leisurely 1970s. With this increased urgency and the speeds enabled by digital tools, the pace of work is now at a fever pitch with no sign of slowing. With that greater pace comes a non-stop flow of performance data, faster than anyone can collect and organize it into a digestible, actionable format. In other words, even if you feel you have visibility into your enterprise right now, if you are processing it manually, your intelligence is likely outdated by the time you finish reading this sentence.

The solution: integrate systems and automated reporting. You’re probably picking up on a theme here. For enterprises with massive amounts of work performance data coursing through multiple tools and systems, manually pulling and combining this data for reporting purposes is just too slow. Integration and automation are the only way to achieve real-time visibility in the workplace at the speed of modern business.

10. Software overload

ChiefMarTec’s Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic — which annually catalogs the total offerings available to marketers in a given year — has exploded from approximately 150 in 2011 to 6,829 in 2018. (Reading this year’s edition will likely require an electron microscope.)

software landscape

If this figure encompasses only marketing technology, you can only imagine how vast the total work technology landscape must be. Clearly, we have more tools than ever to get work done. The problem: the more tools we use, the more fragmented our work data becomes across those tools, and the harder it becomes to conjure a clear, comprehensive picture of what’s happening in the enterprise.

The solution: declutter your systems. Recognizing that not every tool in your stack is worth keeping around, consider which tools are just taking up space and need to tossed out. Then, for your remaining stack of must-have tools, harness the power of integration to round up all of that work data into one central platform.

11. Increased volume/complexity around communication

According to the Email Statistics Report, between 2014 and 2018, the average office worker received 90 emails and sent out 40 business emails per day. Now imagine that same volume of communication multiplied over the burgeoning number of communication tools that have become standard issue for enterprise workers — text, IM, phone, meetings, social media, Slack, Google Docs, spreadsheets, sticky notes, etc. Contained in this nonstop deluge of communication is information critical to enterprise visibility (Ex: What is the status of that critical customer implementation? Why is it behind schedule? What action is the team taking to get back on track?). Assembling this information into a digestible, actionable format can be nigh impossible, partly because of the sheer number of communication channels and partly because of the practice of manually re-entering this information across each channel to suit the preferences of different recipients.

The solution: integrate work management platform with communication apps. Chatbots and other AI-driven technology is expected to cut down the need for unnecessary typing a la Gmail Smart Autocompose, but how to beat the personal preferences of individual team members and teams? Integrations present a viable solution, allowing individuals and teams to keep their favorite communication apps while pulling all of that communication into one centralized platform. Here, leadership can get a clear picture of what is happening on the ground, and the need for re-entry across tools is eliminated.

12. On-premise tools

Yes, they are still around, and they are breeding grounds for silos — and including those ubiquitous, immortal word processor and spreadsheet programs. By their very nature, these programs create single files, propagate the problems of having multiple, sometimes conflicting versions of files, and keep the data locked away on individual hard drives, where it can only be harvested by creating a new file and manually extracting the data from the file. Where there are on-prem solutions, enterprise transparency will have blind spots.

The solution: go to the cloud. It’s no secret that cloud-based solutions and platforms engender the sharing of data and files across groups, no matter how geographically dispersed they are. Google Docs, for instance, with its simultaneous group editing, has made document versioning a thing of the past. No wonder even Microsoft has moved its Office Suite to the cloud via Office 365. Of course, for certain enterprise groups that deal in sensitive information (Ex: development or finance) on-premise solutions are still a necessity, but the rest of us should feel free to migrate to the cloud as often as possible.

13. Low adoption of tools

One digital transformation study found that 63% of managers believe that low adoption of new tools — fueled by lack of urgency and poor communication of the benefits — among their employees is holding up said transformation. Low adoption of tools can also be a significant barrier to enterprise transparency. If team members gravitate away from a uniform set of tools — which tends to enhance transparency — and toward their own hodge podge sets of tools, managers will be hard-pressed to bring their team’s critical data together.

"The job of a manager is to help people cross the bridge — to get them comfortable with the technology, to get them using it, and to help them understand how it makes their lives better.” Didier Bonnet, coauthor of  Leading Digital

The solution: push uniformity. Choose a uniform solution or platform your entire team can use, then sell it hard and support training and adoption. Didier Bonnet, who leads the firm that co-authored the aforementioned study, says, “Employees need to understand why [the new technology] is an improvement from what they had before. The job of a manager is to help people cross the bridge — to get them comfortable with the technology, to get them using it, and to help them understand how it makes their lives better.”

14. Poor monitoring of work intake

How does the average knowledge worker receive work requests? Email? IM? Uncomfortable restroom convo? Paper airplane over their cubicle wall? “The biggest problem with intake processes today is we just don’t have consistency through all of our workflows,” said Jason Falls, chief instigation officer (actual title) at Conversations Research Institute, in a recent webinar. “Whether it’s doing internal projects, whether it’s working with outside vendors, whether it’s integrating the two into one — there’s little consistency from one place to another in how we take in information to set the mechanism running so that we can actually accomplish the project at hand.” Not only does work get started on the wrong foot. In many cases, work requests that fly under the radar create blind spots in enterprise visibility and become unpleasant surprises down the road.

The solution: create one point of intake and workflows to support it. Bring order to your work intake by choosing a single point of intake, which can be an email alias, a ticketing system, or work management software, and forcing all of your requesters to stick with it. Then build out the workflows and assignments to support it. Jason recommends:

“You need to pick the individual within your organization who’s going to check the shared folder. You need to make sure that there’s a starting point for projects. If you formalize not just the technology part of the process but also the actual framework of who’s going to do what in the blueprint of how each project is going to start and be moved through the organization, then you have much better accountability and eventually, everybody learns the system and gets on the same page.”

15. Undefined workflows

Speaking of workflows, when teams haven’t taken the time to spell out and quantify each step of their work processes, those processes become a black box with very poor visibility. In this situation, they can’t say what each step is, who is in charge of each step, how long each step takes, and when the final product will be delivered. Managers may know that something is wrong but will have little transparency into exactly what is wrong. Teams will have little to offer by way of explanation or suggestions.

The solution: take time to document your workflows in detail. With your team, map out how your team works, every step, every person involved. Then, as with #14 above, document how long each step actually takes in the real world. Finally, resist the urge to view this an impediment to getting your “real” work done. Knowing the nuts and bolts of your workflow brings a huge visibility boost at the team level, to say nothing of the increased order and productivity that come with it.

16. Fuzzy roles and responsibilities

What happens to transparency when no one quite knows who is in charge of what? Generally speaking, visibility is the direct result of each team member reporting up on their individual assignments and responsibilities to provide a broad mosaic of what the company is working on. Without well-defined roles and responsibilities, team members will be unsure of what falls under their purview, much less able to report on it, and visibility will fall to match that lack of definition.

The solution: define roles and responsibilities. Tammy Erickson at Harvard Business Review recommends, “The leader’s role... is to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the team members are clearly defined for the specific project at hand ... leaders should help team members understand the project’s importance and ultimate objective but leave the exact approach to the discretion of the team.”

17. Lack of alignment with enterprise goals

All the reports in the world are useless to business leaders if they don’t contain information that is pertinent to key business goals. Business author David Finkel reports:

“Too many companies have great goals on paper, but simply don't act in alignment with those goals, or their stated priorities and values. Instead, these underperforming companies allow their efforts to become fractured and scattered, often working at counterpoint to each other.”

These fractured efforts are often reflected in team or departmental reports that may feel totally relevant to those teams or departments but display a profound disconnect from the goals and objectives of the company at large. When reports are not consciously aligned to company objectives, business leader are left flying blind.

The solution: align reporting formats and KPIs to company objectives. Team and departmental leaders should perform an audit of their current reports and ensure that the format of their reports and the data conveyed by them will directly support company objectives and priorities. Leaders should clear each team’s reporting mechanism, ensure that their key objectives are reflected therein, and then periodically review the effectiveness of reports in meeting their needs. “The most successful companies get all their moving parts working in alignment with each other to achieve their top objectives in a manner consistent with their core values and priorities,” David says.

18. Dueling data sources

The story is all too common. Two C-level executives — perhaps a CMO and a CSO — enter a meeting with the CEO, each with their own versions of the company’s lead data, each ready to prove why their team has been a success while the other has been the sole source of the company’s woes. Before long, phrases like, "Well, I don't know where his numbers came from,” or “But my numbers show that we exceeded our qualified leads goal by X%," are being hurled around the room. Instead of enhancing transparency in the workplace, the presence of conflicting data has only obscured the proper course of action.

The solution: establish a single source of truth. Leaders — in this case, the CEO — need to shut down this data distrust and force both sides to agree on one system that will be considered the company’s single source of truth. From then on, when the urge to argue the numbers arise, leaders need only remind the guilty party of their commitment to restore order.

19. Manual entry/re-entry

A few years ago, Canadian bank ATB Financial was tracking hundreds of projects at a time via a shared spreadsheet. Every Friday, the spreadsheet was distributed and, over the weekend, team members provided their updates. This information was then assembled into reports, a process that could reach all the way into the following Wednesday. By then, the information was already outdated by 2-3 days and often filled with errors due to manual re-entry of the data. Ironically, their efforts to promote transparency were actually cancelling out the usefulness of the data.

The solution: integrate and automate. By allowing human beings to get out the way of the gathering and reporting of the data, teams can eliminate the types of delays that ATB experienced. Integration and automation can remove this burden, provide businesses with near-real-time visibility, and give teams back time to act on their findings.

20. Lack of leadership

Success-driving business doesn’t happen without a significant amount of push from the top. In organizations where company leaders are indifferent on the subject, timely, relevant visibility happens only in small pockets, in teams and departments where managers happen to value transparency. In these situations, due to the lack of concern from executives, reporting tends to focus on the needs of the individual team or department and not on providing business leaders with the intelligence to make critical company decisions.

The solution: get executive sponsorship. Achieving enterprise-wide transparency is a major initiative that requires the cooperation of numerous departments and teams. It often includes the implementation and adoption of new tools, systems, and processes. For this reason, enterprise visibility has to be managed from the top down, by executives who have the clout to pull so many groups together and persuade them to make often monumental changes in how they execute, track, and report their work.

Transparency in the workplace means change

No enterprise is 100% free of these visibility-killing maladies. With enough desire, however, any enterprise can begin taking steps to drive these influences out and promote greater transparency. For some, this will mean making sweeping changes to their workplace culture. For others, achieving visibility will require a sustained, company-wide focus on visibility that hasn’t existed before. For nearly all, a re-thinking of technology — most notably in the areas of integration, automation, and work management — will be required to create an environment of reliable, timely, relevant enterprise transparency. Ultimately, enterprise transparency means change — but it’s a change for the better.