I just finished reading Keith Richards’ memoir, Life. I found his candor refreshing and illuminating. By the end of the read, I truly understood his passion for music and the authenticity in his spirit. But I also respected the fact that he kept many of the salacious details (that very ones that most red-blooded humans are dying to know) obscured in an impressionist’s blur. Perhaps he just couldn’t remember them because of his drug-induced state? I’d prefer to think that he chose an appropriate level of transparency.
In this world of everyone screaming for more and more transparency I’d like to make a case for why, perhaps, there are times when it’s better to share less. Back in the ’90s when I was first running VIA, I eagerly and openly shared all the details about the company’s operations and finances with the entire staff. It was my natural tendency, and we were a small, close-knit group with a highly collaborative culture. But as things got rough during the Internet bubble and following 9/11, I found that oversharing could have adverse consequences. For many, it was a confusing distraction as they tried to process all the information and understand the personal implications. It was also debilitating in the sense that most weren’t in a position to control the outcome. And for some, it was overwhelming. Uncertainty led to anxiety, and they’d convince themselves that the worse case was inevitable. I even once lost a senior creative team who overreacted to a financial situation they perceived as much worse than it actually was.
So in subsequent years I started sharing information that was appropriate for the audience and within their ability to understand and control it. I’ve found this to be drastically more effective at keeping the organization motivated, challenged and constantly improving. I don’t believe this approach is hiding anything or being misleading. Honesty is absolutely the best policy, but I don’t believe that full disclosure is always necessary.
For instance, I believe more would be accomplished in Congress if the men and women we elect could operate a little more out of the spotlight, focused more on problem solving than spin doctoring. And think of the market gyrations caused by the minute-by-minute interpretations of the Fed’s public comments.
When making hard decisions, there’s a directness that’s required and a need for contemplative thought that full transparency can compromise. I find that when you have an infinite number of voices chiming in you get weak or watered-down solutions that can appease many but accomplish nothing. We’re living in hard times, and change will be all around us. Difficult decisions will need to be made by informed leaders in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. During some of these times, discretion would be the better part of valor.
[Image: Flickr user Danielle Oberti]