Why You Might Choose to be Translucent (Not Transparent!)

If you’ve worked for any length of time in a large organization in a position other than the very highest level of leadership, you’ve probably experienced being informed of – if not blindsided by – decisions made by others that effect your day-to-day work. You may have left that day wondering why you were not included or consulted in the process, and wishing for more transparency. In the last five years, hundreds of articles and think pieces have been written on the value of transparency in the workplace – the majority of those since the beginning of the Covid pandemic and the seismic shift to working from home (or working from anywhere!), where the organic impromptu water cooler conversations became no longer possible. Transparency in the workplace seems like a worthy goal – after all, who wouldn’t want to know what’s going on, and to be given clear communication? And the majority of articles point to transparency leading to genuine relationships, improved trust, and improved productivity… which all sound great, right?

If you’ve been in the situation that started this piece, you may see where this is going. A majority of us hunger for more transparency from those in positions of higher authority. But if you’ve read more than a few of the hundreds of articles on transparency, you may have noticed that many of them are focused on how you can (or should) be more transparent with those in positions of higher authority – not the other way around.

Taking the first step to create a more authentic culture is important, and of course you can only control your own actions – not anyone else’s – so it’s perfectly understandable that so many writers focus on what you (rather than your managers) can do. But if your work environment isn’t a hugely supportive one, it can feel daunting – or even downright scary – to take the first step in being transparent, especially if you have experienced identity-based marginalization in the past. And if you’ve tried being transparent – either in your current workplace or elsewhere – and felt it thrown back in your face or shared around like gossip, you’re likely to be guarded and wary about ever being as open again in future. You may have even shared a work-in-progress or an idea and had someone else take it over and claim credit for it! (If any of these happened to you, I am truly sorry.) As a result, you may find yourself taking the other extreme: being opaque, and sharing as little information as possible about your work and/or your experiences.

You may find yourself being transparent with your managers and more opaque with your team, or entirely the opposite! But of course, being opaque or transparent isn’t a binary either/or. It’s a wide spectrum, on which you might place yourself differently based on a number of factors. Somewhere on that spectrum is translucent. Translucent, of course, traditionally means “allowing light, but not detailed shapes, to pass through and be visible.” So how might the idea of being translucent be helpful this week?

This week’s tip:

If being transparent doesn’t (always) work for you, avoid walling yourself off and instead give yourself permission to be “translucent.”

  • In our metaphor – where being opaque means being closed off, and being transparent means sharing everything – being translucent means 1) sharing broad strokes (not full details) about your work and/or your experiences, and then 2) being open to follow-up questions. If you find the follow-up questions are off-base, or missing the point of what you’re sharing, this is a good indication that either a) you need to clarify, or b) this might not be the right person to talk to about this at this point in time.
  • Translucency enables you to start somewhere and build a level of trust together, while transparency assumes a level of trust that – if it isn’t there – can be detrimental and even harmful.
  • If you’re around people who talk a lot – or if you talk a lot yourself – you may find that people lean in and listen more when you’re being translucent; your words may carry more weight. And it gives you a chance to underpromise and overdeliver!
  • If you’re a manager, err more on the side of transparency (rather than translucency) with your team. Whether they say this directly to you or not, they will appreciate it, and will reciprocate if you are building a trustworthy environment.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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