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For leaders, transparent conversations take courage

Rochester Business Journal
March 8, 2013

Corporate leaders walk a tightrope between transparency and secrecy. We can't recklessly talk about everything we know. At the same time, open conversations help fix issues before bad news turns into a full-blown crisis.
 
Recent examples show the dangers of keeping quiet. For instance, insiders at GlaxoSmithKline knew the sales force was illegally marketing its drugs for off-label conditions. Leaders ignored the squeaky wheels instead of discussing things openly within the company. For decades, the Boy Scouts concealed information about pedophile leaders rather than confront the issue. Most recently, Lance Armstrong has been lambasted not just for using performance-enhancing drugs but for repeatedly lying about it. In countless cases, hiding problems made matters much worse.
 
All organizational leaders face potential crises sooner or later. These days, cellphones have video cameras, memory chips are the size of postage stamps, and YouTube and Facebook can reach the world in moments. In this context, transparent conversations are more important than ever.
 
For example, Reid Petroleum of Western New York recently had a minor crisis on its hands. The company responded wisely with openness.
 
One night, I filled the gas tank at the local station. The next morning, my car sputtered and stalled as black smoke poured from the exhaust. I feared the worst and called my mechanic. "Did you get gas at the corner station?" he asked. "Yes, how'd you know?" I replied. "We've gotten a lot of calls. One of their drivers filled the underground tank with diesel instead of regular gas. I heard they're taking care of it for everybody."
 
The manager at the gas station confirmed, "It's a mess, but corporate will fix everything." The Reid Petroleum executive saddled with the job took my call directly. She was forthright and supportive. "This was our mistake. Ask your mechanic to do whatever it takes to fix your car. We'll pay them over the phone with a credit card."
 
The executive called me twice to check in, and she never made an excuse. When I thanked her for the transparency and speed, she replied, "We're just handling it exactly how we would like it handled if it happened to us."
 
A few days later, I received an apologetic letter with specific details from our conversations. It included a gift card to the gas station to soothe any remaining hard feelings. The lesson was this: Hiding problems hurts our credibility, but openness builds trust.
 
Despite the benefits of transparent conversations, many leaders still resist. It's understandable. We don't want to look bad. We may even convince ourselves we're being loyal to the company by covering something up. In some workplaces, secrecy is a cultural norm. A recent study from the University of Oklahoma's Ryan Bisel showed that unethical activities are the most difficult to discuss.
 
If we accept that candor is best, how can we do it with care? When we're the ones who fell short, it's best to follow Reid Petroleum's golden-rule policy. Come clean, apologize and do whatever you can to fix the problem. When others are involved, we should take it a step further and plan clear talking points.
 
First, be respectful but direct. You might say, "It has come to my attention that one of our supervisors has been bullying some team members." As long as you are composed and factual, you've started the conversation as well as possible.
 
Second, explain how things may get worse unless something changes with a statement like, "If we allow this to continue, I believe we are exposing the organization to greater risk." Notice, it's sometimes easier to speak about ethical issues with business terms such as "exposure to risk" in contrast to unsettling labels like "bad" or "wrong."
 
Third, show how talking within the walls of the organization is the best option with this type of wording: "I would rather address this in-house than read about it in the newspaper a few months from now." This helps co-workers view the problem the way outsiders would.
 
Finally, offer to be part of the solution by saying, "If it's all right with you, here's what I think we should do first." We don't want to dump problems on others. Provide possible solutions and offer to take action.
 
Conversations like these take courage. While there are no guarantees, a University of New Mexico study by Pam Lutgen-Sandvik showed that people who team up to speak collectively experience "more positive outcomes" and less risk compared to individual communicators. As uncomfortable as these conversations seem, most front-page corporate problems could have been solved quietly if someone had spoken up earlier.

Alex Lyon (alexanderlyon.com) is a professional speaker and associate professor at SUNY College at Brockport.3/8/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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