Is Transparency Always a Good Thing?

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by Jim Funk

Businesswoman and question mark on blackboardThe news I received last month was unexpected, disappointing, and maddening. My alma mater, St. Joseph’s College, announced they would be “suspending operations” at their Rensselaer, Indiana campus after the end of the spring semester. This decision was made by the Board of Trustees, based on a dire financial situation at the college that the majority of the members believed could not be turned around. The students, faculty, alumni, and town were all caught off guard. The Alumni Association responded quickly, saying they believe the college can be saved. They are undertaking a major fundraising effort on their own to try and reverse the decision, but only time will tell whether their efforts will work.

There have been criticisms leveled at the Board and Administration for not being transparent about the financial situation, and not acting early enough to properly address the problem. The backlash, and the ultimate result that the school is suspending operations, may be indicators that transparency was needed long before now. The Chairman of the Board recently issued a statement saying that they thought sending out an SOS would have been unproductive. The Board thought that sharing information about the school’s financial hardships would discourage potential donors from giving, rather than encourage them to help. I would also guess there was a lot of discussion about whether students would continue to come to St. Joseph’s if they knew of the financial problems. We don’t know the answer, but we do know that many people are upset, and now the future of the college is in jeopardy.

I know from my years working in Human Resources that there are many situations discussed in the administrative suites and board rooms of companies and organizations—in practically any industry—that beg the question of transparency. When those in charge know certain facts, their communication choices can be critical. For example, in a situation where there are likely going to be layoffs, prudence calls for a well-thought out communication plan that has a clear sequence of steps, timing and messaging. Most leaders easily see why such care and planning is necessary. What about situations that are not so clear-cut, or where there is disagreement among the decision-makers about what information should be shared?

Opening the books: A decision of transparency

I decided to do a little more research on transparency in the business world. I spoke with Anne Godbout, Executive Director of Spiritours, an Economy of Communion business located in Montreal, Quebec. I know Anne to be an honest and forthright leader, so I asked her whether she had ever gone through a time when she found transparency to be a challenge.  It didn’t take her long to think of a situation she recently faced. She told me how her company was not able to meet their financial goals last year, so she had to inform the employees that there would not be a team bonus. Later one of the employees found out that the company had made a significant donation to a charity during the previous year. The employee started telling other employees about it, and suggested it was probably the cause of the financial shortfall that resulted in no bonuses.

When Anne learned of this, she considered sharing the company’s financial records with all the employees—something she had not done before. Of course, a private company has no obligation to open their books to the employees, but she thought that maybe it would help them understand there were other factors involved, and the charitable contribution was not the cause. She worried, though, because she said it’s tricky to show employees financial information that they may not fully understand. Despite the risk of further misunderstanding, she decided to go ahead and review the company’s books with all the employees in order to reassure them and rebuild trust. After doing so, she said she felt right away she had done the right thing. The employees better understood the situation and appreciated Anne’s openness with them. Now she continues to share financial records with them, as she believes they deserve to know more about matters that could impact them, and they deserve to feel trusted. In turn, she finds they trust her more, too.

Holistic Leadership calls for transparencyholistic-leader-competencies-transparent

In my Holistic Leadership competency model, being transparent is one of the nine characteristics that is critical to successful leadership and successful organizations. Holistic leaders are open, honest, direct, and forthright in the way they act and communicate. This doesn’t mean they are indiscriminate with the timing or the information that is shared. Rather, they understand when people are being impacted by certain situations and they willingly share the information that matters at the appropriate time. These leaders communicate clearly in a direct and honest fashion, which earns respect from colleagues.

But is transparency always a good thing?

It is a fair question to ask. Surely everyone isn’t always on a need-to-know basis. How does the leader know when and how to be transparent? Such decisions require the leader to:

1) Take time to reflect on the implications of transparency, and of withholding information;

2) Talk with trusted confidants or other colleagues who can share honest feedback and advice;

3) Display courage in meetings with other decision-makers by speaking up when the decision or the communication plan doesn’t seem right.

Of these three, I would actually list the last one as the most important, and in some ways the most difficult. Courage is not only critical to making good decisions about transparency, but also to the initial decision itself. Leaders must ask themselves: Is the decision the right thing to do? And when we communicate this news, can we do so with honesty and integrity, knowing we made our best decision?

To do what is truly right, there is a sequence, place and time for transparency, so that it does not create unnecessary misunderstandings or pre-empt the elements of a good communication plan.

Going back to my opening story, I hope that St. Joseph’s College will somehow recover from their current financial crisis. I look back fondly on my four years at the institution. I found it to be an exceptional and unique educational experience that prepared me well for my career and my life. I love their motto, “Involved for Life,” which is truly what they teach and encourage in their graduates. If there is an opportunity to take the college into the future, people will expect the leaders to be vigilant about communicating with the transparency that was missing in recent years.

We can all learn from these difficult lessons. Things don’t automatically get better if we avoid sharing bad news. In tough situations, the smartest thing we can do is to consider the people involved and the possible outcomes of disclosing information. Leaders who go through this process will be respected by their colleagues, even when they are faced with delivering bad news.

 

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.

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