The words transparency and accountability are used frequently by staff and leaders alike these days. However, as my team of DEI consultants and I have learned, very few organizations take the time to establish a shared understanding of what these complex concepts are actually about, leading to misaligned expectations, hurt feelings, and feelings of betrayal.
Before embarking on a definition of transparency and accountability, it’s important to note that these values should serve the ultimate purpose of building more trust in an organization. Trust is critical to organizational effectiveness as well as organizational change. Change initiatives can’t take hold when there is low trust in an organization.
Trust itself is a big word. One may ask, “Who do you trust?” but often the reply is “With what?” I trust my husband with my life, but not so much with balancing our checkbook. Whereas I trust my business partner with our company bank accounts, but doubt he would lay down in traffic for me like my husband (nor should he; he’s got his own beautiful wife and daughters to live for.)
Trust: choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.
Distrust: what is important to me is not safe with this person or in this situation (or in any situation).
Brown offers a mnemonic for the qualities and behaviors that engender trust: BRAVING.
Boundaries: Making clear what’s okay and what’s not okay. I trust you to hold your own boundaries and to respect mine.
Reliability: You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t over promise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.
Accountability: You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
Vault: You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share.
Integrity: Choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing them.
Nonjudgement: I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.
Generosity: Extending the most generous interpretation to the intentions, words, and actions of others
Interestingly, while I like her definition of accountability and use it below, she makes no mention of transparency, instead talking about the vault and holding confidences. And at the same time, she also talks about how clear is kind and unclear is unkind. Unclear communications or policies lead to low-trust environments where “problematic behavior, including passive-aggressive behavior, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive backchannel communication (or ‘the meeting after the meeting’), gossip, and the ‘dirty yes’ (when I say yes to your face and then go behind your back)” is common. And so, if we interpret clear as transparent, we see that a healthy, trust-filled organization needs to dance between transparency and boundaries, clarity and keeping confidences. Like most big concepts, trust rests in paradox, and it is in that spirit that I offer these working definitions of transparency and accountability.
Transparency in an organization is the practice of sharing information regarding the organization’s operations to its people with the intent to create trust – between leadership and staff, between colleagues, within the organization as a whole, and between the organization and the public. (Mitsis, 2021) This is important because there is a long history of organizational leaders withholding information, such as pay scales, promotion practices, and company financials, which leave employees feeling taken advantage of or blindsided by layoffs and other unfortunate events. An example would be the Enron scandal, where thousands of employees were left with little to no retirement savings while leaders walked away with golden parachutes. And today, examples of institutions violating public trust abound, from the myth-making of the Kitty Genovese story to the media bias and harm against the Exonerated Five to the confusing communications from the CDC during the pandemic.
And yet, zones of privacy are also needed to create trust within organizations. As Ethan Bernstein writes in the Harvard Business Review, “For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions. Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes cease altogether. Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide. If executives [or staff] pick up on signs of covert activity, they instinctively start to monitor …behavior even more intensely. And that just aggravates the problem.”
As Brown details in her acronym BRAVING, being a vault of confidential information is also important for leaders to build trust. This is more true when you have more power. For example, while it is within a former employee’s right to air their grievances against an employer after their departure, for an organization, with sizable power and resources, to air their grievances would be a gross abuse of power and erode the trust of present and future employees. Therefore, to instill trust, employers cannot be transparent about why employees departed an organization. This is upsetting for many, who want to know what happened and how to prevent it. But at the same time, short of criminal or abusive behavior by the employee, organizations should not give their side of the story; to do so would likely make it far more difficult for the departing employee to find new work. It would mean that every small mistake or grievance from an employer could be made public. Again, the employee has the right to state such grievances via review sites or social media, but for an entire organization to “leave a review” of an employee on a public site would be disproportionately harmful.
One of Brown’s maxims that I hold dear is that “values without observable behaviors are bullshit.” And so, while organizations may want to wrestle with defining transparency, I find a preliminary definition will suffice if the focus is then on observable behaviors. Observable behaviors have the added benefit of clarifying cultural misunderstandings and aligning folks around what any high-level concept really means in this workplace.
In my mind, the observable behaviors of transparency would include the following:
What transparency is NOT (or when it crosses boundaries and breaches confidentiality):
Accountability is the ability to own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
Sounds simple enough, but in the United States, we have very few examples of accountability. Most often, we have no accountability and the powerful act with impunity. In a reaction to this injustice, we often turn to punishment or public shaming to right wrongs, but that is not accountability either. Punishment and shaming both rest on dehumanization – regarding someone as less than human and robbing them of their dignity.
Accountability pre-supposes that a human being is capable of growth, and therefore, the desire is to encourage reflection and growth not external punishment or shame. This is the foundation of most restorative justice practices, which is also often the true goal of most diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility work – organizational justice that stems from accountability and repair, not punishment or shame. When trying to imagine an accountable, just world, I am most often reminded of Bryan Stevenson’s words: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Thus, to have true accountability, we need to constantly remind ourselves of one another’s humanity and dignity. And the only way accountability becomes sustainable and desirable is if the community or organization sees that when a person does own their mistakes, apologizes and makes amends, they are seen as dignified individuals still considered worthy of love and belonging in the community.
That’s a tall order. But that does not mean organizations could not be more accountable (and thus more just). Observable behaviors of accountability could include:
- Leaders model owning their mistakes, apologizing, and making amends. The amends need to be in proportion to the situation. For example:
- A company fires someone who sexually harassed an employee.
- A CEO who lost company money because of poor decision-making takes a pay cut to cover employee salaries instead of laying off employees.
- An intern who sent a test email to customers owns up to it and apologizes to their manager. The company protects the intern from online abuse (humor is one good way to deflect this, as HBO found out).
- Staff and teams also model owning their mistakes. That means if a decision goes south, the person or team cleans it up, if possible, and if not, is transparent about why it happened and what they learned. After lessons are shared, the staff member or team is given the grace to grow.
- Providing clear plans and reasonable timelines for change initiatives. If something changes, communicate it clearly as soon as possible.
- Leaders tie a percentage of their pay to DEI goals.
- Pay equity audits are done regularly and any inequities are resolved within a quarter.
- There are multiple mechanisms for feedback so that mistakes or missteps are caught early on, thereby helping people avoid big, public fumbles.
- Leaders create reasonable workloads and timelines.
- Managers take something off the plates of their direct reports before adding something new.
Talk about accountability always reminds me of restorative justice practices, which are a stepping stone to a more fair and just world. In restorative justice, not only is the victim allowed to express the harm they have suffered and what they need to heal, but the victimizer, after listening to the victim, is allowed to express what they need to change and not harm again. This might be too much for an organization to reasonably implement, but restorative justice is about honoring the dignity of all parties. It acknowledges that the victimizer has needs, too, and the inability for them to meet their needs likely contributed to their harmful actions. In giving the victimizer the right to state what they need, restorative justice honors the full humanity of both parties. And it gives a community the grace to grow and stay whole after traumatic events. Thus, in my mind the bedrock of accountability practices is treating people with dignity and grace.
What might dignity and grace look like in an organization?
- We affirm the worth of every human being.
- We remember people are human even when we are angry with them. (And we try to focus our anger on their actions and behavior, not on their individual being.)
- We respect other people’s boundaries.
- We draw boundaries around accountability practices, meaning we address one issue at a time. We do not pile on and list everything someone has ever done wrong in their life. An exception may be made if an organization is investigating a pattern of abuse.
- We do not shout when we are angry.
- We do not dehumanize anyone by calling them names or ridiculing them.
- We give people the time they need to grow and change. We do not harp on them or observe their every move as they try out new behaviors.
- Once someone has apologized, we are willing to stay connected with them as they make amends and repair the relationship. If we do not want to repair the relationship, we acknowledge that it is time for us to leave the organization or community.
- We acknowledge that some people have been so violently dehumanized, we must consciously make efforts to rehumanize them despite our cultural conditioning. This means going against the grain of established practices and questioning much of what we’ve been taught about how to relate to others.
Dignity is not politeness or simple kindness. It is not “treating people as you would like to be treated.” It requires deep work and the skills of personal reflection, cultural truth-telling and forgiveness to truly be realized. It is also, if I’m honest, hard. But it is absolutely vital to accountability. Without dignity, we will continue to fall into the traps of punishment and public shaming, thereby continuing cycles of oppression and violence.
Like I said in the beginning of this article, trust rests in paradox. For us to create high-trust environments, transparency must be paired with boundaries, privacy, and confidentiality; accountability must dance with dignity and grace. The United States is not particularly enamored with paradox, nuance, or complexity right now, but that is what this moment demands of us – the moral courage to embrace complex topics and live in a state of flux as we create a more human-centered world.
Minal Bopaiah is the author of Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives and the founder of Brevity & Wit, a strategy + design firm dedicated to designing a more equitable world.
The author is grateful to Steve Bass, LaToya Linzey, Brenda Williams-Butts, Ernesto Aguilar, Cheryl Snyder, participants of the DEI Executive Forum, and the team at Brevity & Wit for feedback and suggestions while writing this article.
* Some observable behaviors for transparency and accountability were taken from Schnackenberg AK, Tomlinson E, Coen C. The dimensional structure of transparency: A construct validation of transparency as disclosure, clarity, and accuracy in organizations. Human Relations. 2021;74(10):1628-1660.
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