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. Fortunately, many stood up with courage.

Crises exist to test what leaders are made of.

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

“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.

Politics, moral, ethics, race and religion among others were tabu topics. Most leaders avoided addressing those every time they could.

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

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.

Trust helps people cope with adversity.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson refers to Psychological Safety as ‘‘a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ as professor Edmonson wrote in 1999.

Building trust requires transparency, not just in how you communicate, but, most importantly, in how you behave.

Fortunately, last week, corporate leaders were 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. Knowing where you stand 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. 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 organizations educating and preparing their employees to be more open to those who think or behave differently? Are corporate policies meant to drive change or just a PR tool?

Transparency is being scrutinized by both internal and external public. It pushes organizations to have a clear standing, not just policies.

3. Transparency is more important than consensus:

Many leaders have a hard time with creating 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.

4. Open dialogue minimizes gossip:

Sending internal emails help let your team know where you stand. But you need to encourage dialogue too. Not everyone might agree. People are afraid and have many questions.

During times of uncertainty, providing a safe space helps build trust. It’s a nice opportunity to encourage teams to discuss tensions face-to-face. The road towards transparency is full of bumps. Expect some tensions.

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

In the long run, adult conversations are more effective than corridor gossip.

5. A culture of transparency is infectious:

What Charlottesville taught is that when leaders stand up, people listen.

And when courageous leaders take the lead, 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.

No pain, no gain. Building a culture of transparency is not easy. People are afraid to express their personal opinions. They fear losing their jobs for being honest. That’s the most recurring theme I see when helping teams get unstuck.

Be courageous. Take the first step. Promote a culture where people can share their opinions.

Building transparency takes time. It requires a cadence of regular behaviors, not just one-offs.

How can you build transparency at your organization?

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

In the end, the biggest lesson about Charlottesville is about being more tolerant. Violence and hate just widen the gap.

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

Violence has no room in my life. Our role is not just to keep our teams calm. It’s our responsibility to eradicate hate and violence. Starting at the workplace.

We must educate our teams to be more tolerant and acceptant. This requires to solve for the root problem, not just fix symptoms. Policies can help, but are not real solutions.

Do you promote transparency at your organization?

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

Are people afraid to speak up? Do they consider your organization a safe space?

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 how to build a culture of transparency? Reach out: [email protected]

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