Transparency: A Window to the Truth
By Don Janssen, DVM
For most of us, transparency goes against the grain. We would rather give good news that brings hope, even if it's just wishful thinking. Choosing to be transparent usually means taking on risk. Often, it is the risk of disclosing something that may appear unfavorable. We commonly encounter situations, personal and organizational, where we have to decide what we should reveal. Several years ago, I was in the midst of such a situation that required taking a stance on transparency.
As I settled into my seat at the executive team table, I nervously mulled over all that had led to this moment. Two years prior, our CEO Doug Myers had given us clear direction. He wanted to know that all animals under our care were thriving, and that we could assess their welfare scientifically. With that as our vision, we designed a program to elevate animal welfare to an even higher level.
But we ran into a snag. A crucial part of the program was to solicit and respond to animal welfare concerns noticed by employees and guests. I was about to propose that we publish the list of concerns and our responses for all employees to see. We knew there could be a risk if those concerns were made widely available. The concerns could take on a life of their own outside our control. We also knew that the process needed full transparency to reduce suspicion, build trust, and obtain credibility. But was that transparency worth the risk? As I sat there ready to share all this, I wondered how the executives would react.
Transparency is a constructive practice free from attempts to hide or obscure and is a window to the truth. It takes a unique leader to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay. Great leaders dare to be honest and transparent even if, in the short term, it makes them look bad. Despite the risks, these leaders make transparency a personal and organizational priority.
Creating a culture of transparency requires some organizational preconditions.
1. Psychological safety. This refers to a spirit in which people feel free to bring up problems, concerns, and ideas without fear of unwelcome personal consequences. Transparency cannot happen without psychological safety. Leaders can encourage psychological safety by being humble, revealing their vulnerabilities, modeling curiosity, and encouraging questions.
2. Truth-telling culture. Great leaders tell the truth and share its significance, even if it reflects poorly on them or their organization. Failing to reveal the truth is one of the most common mistakes leaders make. The truth will come out eventually. Rather than avoiding the facts, tell the truth and develop a strategy to deal with that truth.
3. Privacy and Confidentiality. A practice of transparency does not mean you share all information. You must protect confidentiality and privacy. The distinction between maintaining privacy and being transparent is usually clear-cut. If there is a question, though, examine your purpose in sharing or withholding information. Your aim should be to uphold the truth, benefit others, and not be self-serving (e.g., not to protect a reputation by withholding the truth).
By consistently practicing transparency, we can expect the following positive outcomes.
1. Reduced speculation and claims of secrecy. People can sense when information is withheld and, over time, learn whom they can trust to be transparent and forthcoming. As trust mounts, suspicion declines, and the need to fabricate faulty assumptions or construct complex theories diminishes.
2. Realistic strategies. Dealing with the truth, regardless of how difficult the consequences, permits leaders to work unimpeded. They can work toward useful strategies that deal with the truth. In contrast, obscuring the truth distracts leaders. They are forced to spend unproductive time controlling information, and on defensive strategies.
3. Reputation. A good name is beyond value. Protecting a reputation is the most common justification for avoiding transparency. Oddly enough, it works the other way around. Being transparent is widely respected as a character trait, because it benefits others and is often the hard choice.
4. Accountability. When people see that you are consistently transparent, they can assume you are holding yourself accountable. Other than what might be legally required, this means much less scrutiny and more freedom to act.
5. Tangible and genuine hope. People thrive on hope. But false hope based on a self-serving spin invariably leads to profound disappointment. People want to follow leaders who speak frankly and then show them how to overcome adversity. Instead of disappointment, that yields real hope, which brings forth courage.
Back at the executive team table, I was torn between the risks and benefits of transparency. But those at the table were not. They saw that truth through transparency was the wise choice. The risk of exposure that I feared, they assumed we would counter by the truth and reality of how we care for animals. That put the accountability right back on us, where it should be—out in the open for all to see.
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Don Janssen, DVM, is a veterinarian and retired corporate director of animal health for San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. He is the author of Upside-Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian's Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader. You can find more information about the book here.
Introducing: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance!
Effective March 3, our organization's new name—San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance—replaces the previous San Diego Zoo Global name. This change was inspired by our desire to evolve and focus on how we show up in our conservation mission, with our partners, and allies, around the globe; and how we bring our guests into our mission at our two front doors, at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The health of wildlife, people, and ecosystems are interconnected, and it's essential for us to reflect this in everything we do. The need to create allies for wildlife is more crucial than ever before. The next chapter in our organization's 105-year journey begins now as we work to create a world where all life thrives.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Academy will align with our new brand, and will continue to evolve to serve you—and to help educate, train, and develop allies and advocates for wildlife and conservation around the world.