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Transparency and Honesty: Where are the Leadership Boundaries?

By Danielarapava - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45320273

This week I had a staff member resign. Although they had been offered feedback, support, and encouragement, ultimately they decided to leave. Which is fine. Staff need to choose what is best for them. But organizationally, two narratives circulate. One, outlined by the staff person, and given to close friends and colleagues, and another by the leadership that is a version of the classic "this staff member chooses to seek new challenges." Neither is very satisfying, and neither is honest.

Personnel issues are poor examples of leadership's failures to be honest or transparent because ethically and legally most of the time organizations need to keep their mouths shut. But they also point out one of the issues with transparency. We have the facts: A staff person resigned, but the facts don't tell us why, and it's the why humans want.

Here is where transparency and honesty collide. Transparent is defined as "easy to perceive or detect" and also "having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived," and yet time and again it's directed at leadership implying they were not being honest, which means "free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere." But how much can you tell? How honest are you willing to be? And if you focus more on "the what" than "the why," will you create a kind of "gotcha culture" within your museum or heritage organization?

When someone we know receives a big promotion, my husband often quips they are the same person today they were yesterday, adding that the promotion, the increased salary, and the perquisites don't make anyone any smarter. We might hope that in the wake of the trust a museum places in a director that leadership comes with a huge dose of humility, but too often it doesn't. So we have my-way-or-the-highway leaders certain they know it all, and they don't. And their nervousness at not knowing everything makes them protective of what they do know. Meanwhile, staff, particularly those who've worked through an almost seven-month pandemic, don't want surprises. They don't want to guess when the next wave of terribleness will hit them. They are weary. They want honesty and a degree of control over a world that seems frighteningly turbulent. They want leaders who will share what they know, and more importantly share a plan of action based on what they know.

So maybe it's not just transparency we're after? Maybe we want more than the facts. Maybe we want honesty delivered with a side of humility. Because when staff ask for honesty they also ask for trust. And when leaders trust staff with information, whether in person, via Zoom or in emails, they signal their belief in staff. But that information--whatever it's about--must come coupled with honesty. Leaders need to say here is what I know about this particular issue, but here is what we need to think about. Honesty banishes the proverbial elephants from the room, and nurtures relationships.

As we weather this crisis, here are some things to consider about honesty and transparency for individuals practicing leadership throughout museums and heritage organizations:

  1. When you need to deliver information, sort out the facts from the "whys" and make sure you deliver both. When you don't know, say so.

  2. Transparency and honesty are aspects of communication. Leaders take blame for being poor communicators, but sometimes staff can't communicate either. They are fearful of disagreeing with one another because they have to work together. Practice being a good communicator no matter where you are in your organization. And if you find good communication happening in a particular program or department, ask why. Then listen and learn.

  3. Share what you know when you know it. And listen to what staff say in response.

  4. Make yourself available. Be there for your staff virtually or actually.

  5. When you make a mistake, be honest. Apologize. Move forward. If you don't, no one else will either.

Be well and stay safe.

Joan Baldwin

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