Five transparency lessons in the wake of Charlottesville

True leaders remind us that we are better than this. Pic by Jerry Kiesewetter

“In this maelstrom, the most clarifying voice has been the voice of business.” — Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a board member at PepsiCo

Crises are not just unfortunate events but turning points.

What happened at Charlottesville was ugly. But the aftermath was the real crisis. One that put top leaders to test. Donald Trump failed to offer moral leadership.

Crises exist to test what leaders are made of. Fortunately, many stood up with courage.

Politics, moral, ethics, race and religion among others were tabu topics.

“When I went to business school, you didn’t see anything like this,” said Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce. “Nobody talked about taking a stand or adopting a cause.” As quoted in The New York Times.

People want to do business with companies that walk their talk. Having an inspirational Corporate Purpose is not enough.

Today corporate leaders are expected to take a stand. Transparency is no longer optional.

Charlottesville demonstrated that there’s no longer room for organizations to hide and stay silent.

I cannot stay silent either. That’s why I wrote this piece.

One Cannot Not Be Transparent

“One cannot not communicate.” — Paul Watzlawick

Building on Watzlawick’s axiom, one cannot not be transparent. Everything a leader does is a message: activity or inactivity, words or silence — all are messages communicating something.

As I wrote in my book, Stretch for Change, transparency is the foundation for trust. It can bring a culture together or tear it apart.

People expect leaders to shed light during dark times.

Trump’s failure to draw a moral line didn’t just speak about his personal values. By not condemning White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis, he put everything that America stands for at risk.

To function properly organizations need Psychological Safety. “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ — as defined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson.

Tolerating violence or toxic behaviors not only puts people’s psychological safety at risk. It also challenges the credibility of the leader. How can we follow someone that cannot take a ‘moral’ stand?

This past week, the country had to look elsewhere for moral leadership and guidance.

Fortunately, corporate leaders stood up and became the most clarifying voice.

Five Lessons on transparency from Charlottesville

“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” — Dalai Lama

1. Taking a stands earns respect:

People celebrated when the CEOs of Merck, Intel and Under Armour resigned from the American Manufacturing Council on Monday.

Merck’s Kenneth Frazier cited his “responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

But others hesitated, like Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison who originally remained on the council to “have a voice and provide input” on matters concerning the company, as cited by CNBC.

Knowing where you stand says a lot about your organization. Moving fast is also important in today’s environment. It took a couple of days for Campbell Soup CEO to follow suit.

If you are clear on where you stand, move fast.

2. Personal and professional matters are connected:

Events like Charlottesville confirm once again that the wall between personal and professional lives is fictional.

What happened with the Google memo incident is another example. Employees are more vocal than ever.

The firing of the engineer created a huge debate between those who prioritize free speech and those who prioritize fighting discrimination.

While I agree that Google shouldn’t tolerate discrimination, firing an employee is getting rid of a symptom.

Are you educating and preparing your employees to be more open to those who think or behave differently? Are your corporate policies meant to drive change or are they simply PR tools?

When it comes to social issues, organizations need to take a stand, not just have proper policies.

And the first step is to create real conversations. Educate and train your team to benefit from opposition rather than fight those who think differently.

3. Transparency is more important than consensus:

Many leaders have a hard time dealing with tensions.

I see this a lot advising leaders from both startups and corporations. They want to keep everyone happy, thus filtering their real beliefs on critical issues.

Organizational alignment is a myth, as I wrote here. It’s better to be clear on where you stand as a leader than being afraid of upsetting some of your team member or stakeholders.

We live in an era of transparency. Organizations are being scrutinized by both internal and external publics.

During times of crisis, you cannot stay in the dark.

4. Open dialogue minimizes gossip:

Many CEOs send internal emails this week to condemn Charlottesville attack. That’s a perfect first step to communicate where the organization stands.

But it’s also critical to provide space for dialogue too. During turbulent times people are afraid. And need to express their fears and questions.

Encourage your teams to discuss tensions face-to-face. Provide a common area and ground rules. In times of uncertainty, offering a safe space helps build trust.

Expect some tensions. Your role as a leader is not to dictate how your team thinks, but to curate the conversation.

Face-to-face conversations are more effective than people sharing on the corridors or Slack channels.

5. A culture of transparency is infectious:

Charlottesville’s aftermath demonstrated that, when leaders are transparent, people listen.

Building a culture of transparency is not easy. People are afraid to express their personal opinions. They fear losing their jobs. That’s the most recurring theme I see when helping teams get unstuck.

But when courageous leaders take the first step, many others will follow.

Being a leader is an act of courage. But most of the times we forget that. And keep our opinions and beliefs to ourselves.

Building transparency takes time. It requires a cadence of regular behaviors, not just one-offs. Think of Charlottesville as turning point.

How can you encourage your organization to be more vocal with a purpose? How might you use transparent leadership to increase social commitment?

Be courageous. Promote a culture where taking a stand means much more than words.

Promote transparent leadership

“Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.” — Mother Teresa

In the end, the biggest lesson about Charlottesville is: we need to be more tolerant. Violence and hate just widen the gap.

That’s the biggest reason why leaders can no longer stay silent. People expect leaders to shed light — especially during turbulent times.

Violence has no room in my life. When we work with different teams, our role is not just to make teams more innovative and effective. It’s our responsibility to promote mindfulness and values.

Organizations can help eradicate hate and violence. Education is not just a responsibility of parents and teachers. Promoting good social behaviors starts at the workplace.

We must educate our teams to be more tolerant and accepting. This requires to solve the root problem, not just fix the symptoms.

How do you promote transparency at your organization?

Is your team afraid to speak up? Do they consider your organization a safe space?

How do you stimulate open dialogue, not just shallow conversation?

How might you turn crisis like Charlottesville as opportunities to strengthen your organization values? And, most importantly, how it behaves?

Knowing where true leaders stand makes people feel safe. It’s a reminder of our core human values.

And a way to recover common sense from political disorder.

Please share your thoughts.

Before You Go

Are you interested in building a culture of transparency? Reach out and check how we can help:

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