How Radical Transparency Kills Stress

Sharing isn’t stressful. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Here’s how real transparency can boost trust, and give your employees the psychological freedom they’ve been craving.

How Radical Transparency Kills Stress

A Utah-based research software company, Qualtrics, practices a management approach they call “radical transparency.”


Details and data regarding individual and company performance–including quarterly objectives and results as well as weekly snippets of employees’ past work and future goals–are shared throughout the company of over 300 employees.

This way, the company communicates information that people need to do their jobs, which is particularly critical considering the largely invisible nature of knowledge work. “We’re hiring people to think,” Ryan Smith, CEO, explains in an interview with The Motley Fool. While the creativity and amorphous nature of knowledge work makes it difficult to control, the trick is that it, in fact, shouldn’t be controlled.

Instead, if you’re hiring people to think, you should be concerned with whether you’re providing favorable conditions for them to do that thinking clearly and well. Radical transparency is actually one key to creating a positive setting in order for your brain and performance to flourish.

Humans don’t become diamonds under pressure

In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer disproved, through a comprehensive study of work journal entries, the pervasive “no pressure, no diamonds” philosophy that ratcheting up stress drives the best work.

The researchers illustrate the damaging effects of pressure with the story of one company, which had gone through a reacquisition construed by existing employees as a takeover. Rumors and fears soared, especially when terminations actually took place and management failed to elucidate the situation. One employee, called Marsha, wrote in her work journal:


“It is very hard to work and get anything done around here today. . . . I feel like an abused spouse that will not leave the abuser. I keep giving them another chance and they keep socking us in the face. . . . Instead, I sit here and wait for them to decide my fate.”

Marsha’s anxiety is palpable in her vivid language: She feels left in the dark, unsupported, and inhibited, consequences caused and sustained by uncertainty.

Supplying relevant information about the future, especially concerning potential negative outcomes like getting laid off, can reduce that anxiety. In one experiment from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, participants were shown a series of neutral images such as household items and quite negative, unpleasant images, such as mutilated bodies. Before each image, they either saw a symbol indicating whether the following image would be neutral or disturbing or a question mark.

The researchers found that parts of the brain such as the amygdala responded more strongly to a negative picture if it was preceded by the question mark cue. “If we can reduce people’s feelings of uncertainty, we can reduce their anxiety and their response to bad experiences,” J.B. Nitschke, one of the researchers involved in the study, noted.

The brain, always scanning for information, is put on alert, not at the rise of some discrete negative event, but at the first suggestion of trouble. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a leading neuroscientist, states in an interview with the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, “[T]he damage comes when people are marinating in anticipation, in the threat menace, which can last for months or years. It’s the anxiety over the future that has the worst effect.”

What marinating in stress does to your brain

This persistent, marinating stress is particularly bad for the brain.


Normally, stress releases hormones such as catecholamines and glucocorticoids in response to short-term situations of danger or trauma. It’s the brain’s natural threat response mode. The problem with prolonged or chronic stress is that those stress hormones then stick around and start meddling with the brain’s wiring, ultimately impairing cognitive function, because you’re continuously on defensive mode.

Those catecholamines and glucocorticoids making themselves at home start to harm the actual structure of your prefrontal cortex, causing declines in processing language and math in addition to weakening working memory and attention regulation. At the same time, those stress hormones strengthen the fear conditioning and emotional memory connections in the amygdala.

What happens then, as Dr. Amy Arnsten, professor of neurobiology at Yale, describes is that the “orchestration of the brain’s response patterns switches from slow, thoughtful PFC regulation to the reflexive and rapid emotional responses of the amygdala and related subcortical structures.”

In other words, we turn from thoughtful, smart human beings into anxious cats chasing laser pointers. Instead of your prefrontal cortex directing your attention to deal with the task in front of you, you’re more likely to be diverted by something bright and shiny and distracted by worry.

Battle the building blocks of stress by shedding light

There are many potential sources of stress in life, but in the workplace, the anxious elephant in the office is mismanagement. It’s all too common to witness the careless, relentless atmosphere of uncertainty, like Marsha’s, that triggers a detrimental, lingering threat response.


Dr. Sapolsky recommends attacking “the building blocks of psychological stress–a feeling as if you have no control over the adversities in your life, a feeling that you have no predictive information about the stressors, if you lack outlets for the frustrations caused by the stressors, if you have no social support.” By addressing uncertainty and anxiety, building trust through information, and paying attention to how people are feeling, you can use transparency to help build a friendly environment that’s best for your brain and you to breathe free.

Practicing transparency in a business strikes at the dark heart of unpredictability and micromanagement. Sharing information paves the way to increasing feelings of certainty and autonomy and opens up opportunities for meaningful connection and social support. It serves as a check and balance against unfair displays of power, distracting and disheartening politics, gossip, and bureaucracy.

If you know where you stand–even if everything’s not rosy–you are equipped with a way to move forward on what matters. What’s more, when you’ve built that foundation of a supportive, benevolent setting, people then have the psychological freedom and security to reach for the good kind of unpredictability–the kind of risking, exploring, and experimenting that drives innovation.

Transparency in motion can make a company, boosting trust and binding people together, and building hospitable environments for people do their best, most creative work. It shouldn’t be considered such a radical practice at all.

Janet Choi is chief creative officer of iDoneThis, an email-based productivity log. She writes about productivity, creativity, and the way people work on the iDoneThis blog. Follow her on Twitter at @lethargarian.

[Image: Flickr user Eran Sandler]