The other day I talked about the power of story at work and how a newly minted CEO talked openly at her first Town Hall. She had so many helpers on her staff to advise her about what to say. She took all their advice into account and decided to “tell her truth” as a way to get into the hearts of her organization.
My question is “How transparent should we be?” Another question “What is the impact of truth-telling at work; does it foster more transparency and if so, why is this deemed a good thing?”
Paul Harvey, a first class radio personality used to say, “Here is the rest of the story.”
After the CEO talked about the fact that she had a past alcohol problem and had returned from a rehabilitation center successfully, the room went numb. You could cut the silence with a knife.
The CEO was being transparent and vulnerable. Yes, that is true. Did it make her employees want to run to the microphone and tell their dirty little secrets too?
Did her vulnerable and honest talk make the company more honest in the days to come?
I left that town hall with a knot in my gut. I wondered if I would have had the tenacity to tell something on the real and not so pleasant side about myself. I decided I would have been less open, I would have, as the saying goes “kept my kimono closed.”
The CEO exposing her deep wound ended up creating camps. The “for camp” thought she was great, nothing to hide, we got what we saw and heard. There would never be an Enron here, was the chant. And that was good.
The “against camp” thought she spilled too much and more importantly, too soon. They were aghast and worried about her ability to manage the Board of Directors which was one of her most important mandates. Did she have more beans to spill and where would she spill them.
Fast forward six weeks.
I was able to have a private one on one with this well versed woman. After all the pleasantries, when we were finally at a place of personal and professional safety, I asked her to do some Monday morning quarterbacking about, that now infamous town hall.
She said, and I quote “I tend to be a rebel of sorts and a change agent. That is how I got this plum job. I wanted to set the clear expectation that our company would be one of truth and transparency. I did that. HOWEVER, I would never, ever, ever tell the truth the way I did again.
“What I learned by getting egg on my face is that my timing was way off. The rebel part of me won and that is not a good thing. What I did NOT do was create enough safety to expose something so private in front of a large group.
It was too much too soon.
The feedback I got was eye-opening. What I heard was by way of the gossip mill (and by the way gossip can be very helpful if you really listen for the patterns that show up.
I had no way of knowing what really went through the minds of those who listened to me. There were many who cringed because they were drinking or taking other substances and wondered if it showed. They went into hiding.
There were others who had family members who were substance abusers and while many remained sober or drug free, there were equal numbers who went back to the bottle or the pills. So, many looked at me and thought “When will she fall off the wagon?”
“What advice do I have for others about transparency?” I was super curious.
“Two things. One is that being a rebel is bound to cause “for” and “against” camps to develop and that is the opposite of what I wanted which was cohesion.
“Second, and this is vital, NEVER TALK ABOUT VULNERABILITIES UNTIL YOU HAVE CREATED SAFETY FOR THOSE YOU ARE TALKING WITH.”
Good advice. As I teach, “Telling the truth is a high level art form. Telling the truth is not spilling your guts. It is about, as all great conductors know, it is always about the timing.”