Is Your Association Leak-Proof?

Last week, it was Walmart and the Vatican. Could your organization be the next subject of embarrassing leaks reported in the media? To avoid that scenario, build trust and transparency, advises one expert.

Picture this: You get off the phone with a cranky member and send an innocent email complaining to a few people in your office. Now imagine what would happen if parts of that email ended up on Twitter or in the local paper as part of a story on the culture of your organization.

If people are going around doing stuff underhanded, then in a transparent system you’re going to get busted, and it’s going to be bad.

That may seem a bit of a stretch, but associations should heed a warning from two similar stories that broke last week. One involved Vatican documents, leaked to the media, that showed a fractured institution filled with rivalries. The other story reported emails from a Walmart executive complaining about the slow start to consumer spending in February. (Cameron Geiger, senior vice president of replenishment for Walmart U.S., wrote to other executives, “Where are all the customers? And where is their money?”)

“If people are going around doing stuff underhanded, then in a transparent system you’re going to get busted, and it’s going to be bad,” said Jamie Notter, vice president of consulting for Management Solutions Plus and coauthor of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. “That’s why we didn’t do transparent systems before. We sort of put up with internal politics, we put up with deceptive behaviors, because transparency was not the norm.”

To build a trustworthy culture where employees aren’t likely to leak sensitive information, there has to be shared understanding of what is responsible behavior, said Notter. “The first decision is, ‘What are the values that we’re going to stand behind?’ And then you have to stand behind them. Then you can be transparent.”

Having systems in place for open communication throughout an organization can help prevent accidental leaks—someone sharing information that they didn’t know could have negative ramifications—Notter said.

“That’s cured by everyone in the organization knowing what’s going on, and in most associations that’s not the case,” he said. “People know their job description, they know what they’re doing, but they don’t have the big picture down. Information is not traveling fast enough for staff to know…the principles that would help them make better decisions. Those are lacking in associations up and down the chain.”

Notter suggested that the trend toward transparency in organizations might be building serious momentum.

“Competitively, the more you resist the transparency movement, the more behind you’re going to fall,” he said. “The [Walmart and Vatican stories] are examples of the old-school, I-can-control-everything mindset in management, and they are going to start getting burned more and more. The folks that take a different approach and understand that it’s not about control, it’s about clarity, those are the ones that are going to move ahead.”


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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