Published on Charity Village
Date: 20th July 2022
This article is an excerpt from Conscious Service: Ten Ways to Reclaim your Calling, Move beyond Burnout, and Make a Difference without Sacrificing Yourself (Hazelden Publishing, Publication Date: April 2022) and is reprinted with permission.
Building communities and cultures that respect and value all their members requires transparency between the organization’s leadership and each person within it. Not everything can be fully see-through, of course. Rules about personal privacy and confidentiality exist for good reasons. Privacy respects autonomy and prevents abuse—central concerns in any organization with integrity.
The type of transparency required of us as we create community together is about honesty and inclusion. As we build these types of partnerships, transparency essentially means we know all we need to know about the things that involve or affect us and the people and processes we are responsible to and for.
Transparency doesn’t mean every little detail about every little thing. It’s about relevance. Most of us don’t actually want to know every detail about everything. We want and deserve the pertinent information about matters that impact or include us.
As it relates to the co-creation of community and the functioning of our organizations, transparency is similar to the clarity at the core of enlightened interpersonal communication. It means relevant information is delivered in honest and open ways to whomever needs it. The aim is for everyone to be well equipped to manage whatever situation is at hand, and to be prepared to operate in the highest capacity. Many organizations operate with an open-door policy. In these communities, people with offices rarely close their doors. When they do it is for privacy and confidentiality. Apart from those times when interactions with others require the confidentiality of a private space, lots of closed doors in any office often indicates that something might be brewing beneath the surface.
Wendy recalls such a time in her organization. Several coworkers, including the CEO, had endured a year filled with losses, including divorces, and personal struggles. Walking through the hallways sometimes felt like entering a morgue. Some colleagues lacked energy and seemed unable to focus, while others were irritable or downright angry. People were ineffective at their work, communication was stunted and rigid, and the overall feeling was stagnant. At times, Wendy could literally feel certain people walk through the door. She could sense their scowl before she laid eyes on them.
It was not an easy time.
In addition to the dampened day-to-day community spirit, morale was eroding at a deeper level. Wendy began doubting her safety and stability in her work. She started to second-guess herself, and she didn’t feel nearly as comfortable voicing her concerns or opinions as she had in previous years.
A clandestine fog overshadowed the daily operations, coupled with a tight-lipped and impatient tone at team meetings. Everybody noticed, but nobody spoke of it. People seemed to just adapt and cling to the hope that this would pass.
But, when the agency was faced with an unexpected dilemma that threatened to cost them significant funding, the state of the community could no longer be ignored.
The senior management team decided to meet on their own to figure out what needed to be done. They decided to come up with a plan and then just tell everyone how it would be. They wanted to be true to their values and ensure the clear and transparent communication process that they used to enjoy, but they doubted it was possible in the current climate. They all knew morale was low, but even among themselves, they didn’t want to talk about it. There just wasn’t time to get into the feelings involved. They had to make some decisions, and they felt they had to make them fast.
Donna, one of the program directors, convinced the team to at least seek some feedback from others. The team invited a few key people to a brief meeting to get their reactions to the solutions that they were considering.
Wendy was one of those few who had the opportunity to offer her ideas and feedback. She did her best to be honest and forthright, but she held back. Even though the team presented the meeting as an open discussion where all ideas were welcome, it didn’t feel that way to Wendy. She had the sense that there really was only one acceptable answer, and she had a feeling the decision had already been made.
And she was right.
When Wendy reflects on this event, she can see that her trust in the process was damaged because the leadership team handled this challenge without regard to the enduring problem of morale. She sees this event as a direct catalyst to the movement to unionize that got underway about six months later.
Describing a process as open and transparent and actually being transparent are two very different things. At times, of course, full disclosure and consultation are not possible. But if this particular incident had been one of those times, then there would have been no need to ask for input from workers like Wendy.
Had the leadership team instead made the decision and shared their solutions while honouring the reality that there had been little time for consultation, people might have been angry, but they wouldn’t have felt duped. This challenge also could have been an opportunity for the leaders to acknowledge the low state of morale and invite people to work together toward improving the agency culture and returning to the shared values at the heart of their purpose.
Respecting other people means sharing your truth with them¾especially when people might already sense that you’re not coming clean. Nothing damages a relationship or frays a sense of community more than trying to convince people to go against their own intuition.
When we own our opinions and observations as well as our intentions, we reduce the potential for developing mistrust. We might be wrong, and we can be responsible for that too, but at least we are telling the truth about where we stand. This is transparency. And, as in Wendy’s situation, these decisions can impact an entire group of people.
Transparency and authenticity go hand in hand. This means that, as leaders, we reflect the truth of who we are, what we think, and how we feel in clear and direct ways. You are not required to share what you are not ready to share. Choose your transparent moments with courage and clarity. Reflect upon any fears that might be holding you back, and be patient with others as they work through their own.
Where is your comfort level with transparency in your workplace?
What can you do to create a greater sense of security within?
Elizabeth Bishop is the author of Conscious Service: Ten Ways to Reclaim your Calling, Move beyond Burnout, and Make a Difference without Sacrificing Yourself (Hazelden Publishing, Publication Date: April 2022). Elizabeth is also a Professor at Confederation College.