How to Get Hidden Agendas Out in the Open

Unspoken opinions aren’t always negative, but the toxic ones can disrupt organizations. A little patience and open-mindedness can get people comfortable sharing.

Pretty much every organization has an organizational chart, which is an interesting lie that a group of people tells itself. Sure, there’s little question that the CEO is in charge, and that rank-and-file workers with specific operational jobs tend to stick to those roles. But in the middle, things get messier.

Organizational culture is often defined as “the way we do things around here.” But the way things get done often has little to do with what the official org chart says.

The problem with so-called “hidden org charts” isn’t so much that they prevent things from getting done (though they might). It’s that they keep leaders from getting a clear picture of how things are getting done, who’s doing them—and how much resentment is bubbling under the lack of clarity. Recently at Forbes, CEO Debra Rinell wrote about the problem of “cliquish leadership” and the toxicity it can create in organizations. In such environments, roles get blurred, people play favorites, a we’ve-always-done-it-that-way mindset creeps in. Org charts, which are drafted in the name of clarity and efficiency, fall by the wayside.

The challenge for an executive is figuring out how to surface hidden agendas while keeping conflict and drama to a minimum.

Rinell notes that one bit of toxic fallout from this is an environment of hidden agendas: “A clique opposed to change or expanded effort will go to extraordinary lengths to advance its own agenda,” she writes. “This might be something along the lines of promotion of one of their own or any change that improves the position of the clique within the organization.”

At associations, this sort of skullduggery isn’t limited to staff. Boards can become hotbeds of passive-aggressive maneuvering; so can groups of members. The challenge for an executive is figuring out how to surface these kinds of agendas while keeping conflict and drama to a minimum.

At his Substack, veteran facilitator Jeffrey Cufaude suggests that a first step is to recognize that while a culture with hidden agendas might be toxic, the agenda being hidden may not be. The problem may not be the idea the vice chair has about the new strategic plan; the problem is that the idea isn’t being shared.

“All agendas remain hidden,” he writes, “unless (1) individuals are naturally predisposed to share their intentions—and some people certainly are—or (2) opportunities are created for everyone to share agendas early on in the formulation of a group and/or at a meeting.”

Cufaude acknowledges that getting people to share their agendas isn’t always easy. But sometimes simply creating an environment for sharing—and giving people permission to share—can help accomplish it. He suggests providing an opening for people to talk about “the beliefs, perspectives, or positions” they bring to a particular conversation. From there, they can begin to talk about the implications of that information.

Still not easy, and it’s unlikely you’ll surface everything that’s going on in somebody’s head—every change they’d like to institute, every resentment about a past move the organization has made. But it might make a dent in organizational groupthink, which Rinell thoughtfully defines as “where the emotional stakes of belonging can outweigh rational thought or behavior.”

Getting to the heart of hidden agendas is an ongoing challenge. The first step is to stop pretending they don’t exist.

(Orla/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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