No More "Because I Said So"

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“You don’t want me to have to tell your father about this!” was a near-universal threat spoken throughout the little ranch homes on Hiveley Street where I grew up in Inkster, Michigan. And the most popular parent-line of the time was the answer to a child’s query “Why?” – with the conversation-ending, “Because I said so. That’s why.” In many homes today these words are gratefully obsolete. It’s hard to overstate the changes in family roles, structure, and expectations, especially related to authority. And in the “adult worlds” of politics, business management, academe, and even religious organizations, there has been a fundamental shift in the focus of authority figures. The essential shift? From control to empowerment.

Resistance to the shift is ultimately futile. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush II – none could win with their “executive privilege” type arguments. Truth outs. Faster and surer than ever.

We are watching it live: In the cell phone, texting, Twitter-Facebook-YouTube world, the curtain will be pulled back on Ahmadinejad.

On the back-side of Fathers Day in this new era that invites men to be (like women): more relational, authentic and collaborative, I offer an argument and a question. The argument: Every authorized leader should live as though they’re governed by the Freedom of Information Act. No ”fathers knows best.” No executive privilege. No “information on a need to know basis,” where your manager decides what you need to know. Open book – on strategy, systems, right down to pay, including executive compensation! The shift from control to empowerment is scary, just ask Ahmadinejad, Gorbachev, de Klerk or others who thought they could open things up a lot but still keep control. But it’s worth it to open up. The upside in empowerment and trust and collaboration is huge.

The question – which we’ll discuss on the air on Saturday – is one I’d love you to comment on today. It begs discussion: Should not-for-profits and for profit businesses choose to act like the Freedom of Information Act controls them, and throw open their books and memos to anyone in the organization who wants to know? I say, YES. The time has come and the rewards are great.

What would it take to for you to lead as that kind of parent, boss or owner? I predict that a shift to total openness would drive you to

Lead – even more so – with your best self,

Dan

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13 responses to “No More "Because I Said So"

  1. Absolutely agree. As an employee of local government, the biggest challenge we experience is mis-trust. This mis-trust not only comes from taxpayers but from employees as well. This has been cultivated by just that sort of leadership – “because I said so”.

  2. In the for-profit just like in the not-for-profit there will always be issues that are difficult to manage. I’m sure that the needs of the DOD and CIA about deployment strength of troops and what agent is inside Iran right now protecting America are matched in the for-profit sector with a desire from Coca Cola that Pepsi not know their competivie plans for 2010. Also in our H/R departments, if we are really serious about mentoring vs. disciplining systems coaching conversations need to stay close among few within the organization.

    To me the conversation is about where a company wants to be on a continuim of openness. On a quarterly basis we have townhall meetings with all of our employees. We show them how we are doing on the budget. We share with them our Board approved critical success factors and our progress toward achieving them. We celebrate the success stories of our units as told by the employees. Finally we open the floor for any questions. Nothing is out-of-bounds. In five years I have only once been asked a question as the CEO that I had to tell the employee we needed to talk about privately.

    I think it works. I think it helps our employees feel that they are part of the same team trying to go in the same direction. I hope our employees feel the same.

  3. Yes….there are no secrets in business and no eraser on the Internet. Technology, including the Internet and blogs, strips away the protections that used to shield businesses from the consequences of their imperfections.

    And as new technologies wire us ever more tightly together, you can go to the bank on the fact that consumers and businesses alike will become even more trustworthy and transparent in their dealings with others.

    Of 462 executives who were asked, “What characteristics are needed to be an effective leader today?” 56 percent ranked ethical behavior as an important characteristic, followed by sound judgment (51%) and being adaptable/flexible (47%). –Source: American Management Association, New York, NY

    Connectivity means untrustworthy business will be quickly and efficiently outed, making it far more financially risky to take short-term advantage of a customer.

  4. The transparency of leadership, the “All FOIAble, all the time” mindset, you suggested builds trust, empowerment and collaboration.
    I agree but placed trust first, because I think it is the most important – we lack trust or trust has been eroded in too many public leaders by messy post-occurence disclosures.
    We want authentic leaders – perhaps to draw from Trial Advocacy background, people subconsciously seek to authenticate their leaders, as a trial lawyer would a proposed piece of evidence. How do we know that its authentic, that is, how do we know that document (or leader) is trustworthy?
    The simple definition of authentication is, “the proponent must present proof that the article is what the proponent claims that it is.”
    Leaders must do the same, over and over, every day. How better to “present proof”, to prove to your staff that you are what you claim to be, than by being completely open, by making full disclosure up front in all your daily decision-making?

  5. I agree that openness is important and has many upsides. However I think that we must be careful with TOTAL openness. Sometimes we hurt people by sharing too much. Sometimes we give the naysayers an opportunity to scuttle a project before it can get a fair hearing if plans are presented too soon. Timing is important as well as tackful commentary.
    Glenda Price

  6. The FOIA Act in Michigan has been considerably weakened over the years.

    Authority is a strange thing. It is worse than greed as a tool of abuse, or maybe can be driven by greed. Authority can be used constructively.

    While attending Michigan State University so many of their policies seemed incorrect to me. I spoke to bureaucrats at MSU as various issues came up with my records, bills, parkign cars, and other issues. I asked them why they did things this way, and universally the answer was, “Because it is our policy.” I decided that passed a certain age a person is no longer told, “Because I told you so,” instead they are told, “Becuase it is our policy.” The anger and or frustration which would sprout from a bureaucrat when I replied that “because it is out policy,” is not a reason or an anwer to my question was amazing. This is the terrible side of authority. I would give them what I thought was a better policy and say why, and that would make them angerier. So much of constructive criticism. At best, I would be laughed at.

    When speaking with local government officials I often see anger, or arrogance, as their reply to anyone who asks questions about their decisions. Many of them hate answering these questions, especially when the person asking points out factual errors in the elected person’s reasons, or points out that the board/ council or what ever elected body actullay hide information or told the public something that was not quite true. A common reply is “We are offended,” by the question, or statement as citizen makes, as if the elected person never makes mistakes, and as if they would never hide anything from the public. They do.

    I recall one city manger in Alpena say, “How dare you bring this up in public,” at a city council meeting. This was a budget question. He then would answer no questions on the matter.

    There is far too much assumption by some elected officials that they, because they were elected need provide no explanation to anyone. Mark John Hunter – Alpena

  7. Well, you’ve whacked the nail dead center again!

    Years ago, during a very difficult time for my former employer, I was asked to absorb the telephone-based customer service operation along with the correspondence-based group I had been leading. Our group more than tripled overnight. My first meeting of substance, beyond quick “Hello” visits, was to gather all the “first contact” persons (Those who actually talked to and wrote to our subscribers directly.) together for an open forum meeting in the auditorium. There were more than 350 of us. There were no predetermined limitations on questions. Many of them were beyond my knowledge-base and ended up triggering “What do you think” mini-discussions.

    The session officially ended after 90 minutes at the end of the business day. Two hours later 75-100 of us were still there, on their time.

    Ground rules: Questions, Complaints, Concerns, Gripes, Barriers to success, were all welcome. My commitment was to respond, and to be on the work floor part of every day. I would listen to the calls and read the letters with them. We would work together to help the rest of the company be better able to help us help subscribers. We would work together to make it a better place to work. “Because it’s policy” would not be a response.

    It was a long way from perfect, but retention of fine people soared, subscriber satisfaction climbed as well. And sometimes, sometimes, people had fun.

    It’s scary in some areas, but I still feel it is go that way or collapse. Let the exception, the rare exception, be control in an environment marked by empowerment. Drop the focus on “Shareholder” and lead based on a broad definition of “Stakeholder.”

    Mike

  8. Well done, Dan. Finally I believe you are starting to see the broader picture! Lots of very good comments, so far. Due to a good ol’ boy network entrenched forever here in the county level of government, I’ve successfully used FOIA to expose an independantly contracter county attorney who was bilking, legally, the taxpayers for very close to $500,000 per year. He was given the green light, smilar but on a much smaller scale to Halliburton, by our ‘trusted’ five member board of supervisors. I held close the FOIA facts, until the county reassesed our properties, with an average increase of 49%. I then wrote a letter to the editor, sharing the data I’d garnered, implying that this is just ONE reason why we are being outrageously burdened by the reassessments. The lawyer ever so graciously resigned from that aspect of involvement with the county government. However, that was just one battle, there is still a war to fight, in order to dissolve this modicum of leadership. Charging right up the ladder, involves state and federal funds misuse and misappropriations. Thanks again, Dan, for restoring my faith…….

  9. addendum: the county I live in is comprised of a lot of agricultural acreage, with a smaller segment of a more residential density makeup. Total populaion,32,000. The replacement, STAFF EMPLOYEE county attorney, with the full array of fringe benefits, who replaced this independent guy, costs the taxpayers a total of $92,000 per annum. I thought that providing more comparative data would be a good thing! 😉

  10. While I’m in general agreement with the concept of openness, I think the best policy comes from an artistic blend of building trust by involving people in decisions that affect them WHEN THERE IS TIME so that when an instant call must be made by someone with more authority or stature in the organization, the subordinates can trust that the decision was made with the best long-term interests of everyone at heart, that the leader took their perspective into account, to the extent that the leader came to know their perspective over many team meetings over an extended period of time.

    In this day and age, dynamic balance (like a mobile) is far more responsive to the many changes in environment over which we have no control than the kind of rigid, structured balance we find in bureaucracies where five-year plans are made and studied over and implemented long after every component in the external environment has changed, sometimes dramatically.

    Effective organizations learn to constantly scan the environment, and makadjust to the constant changes that occur there–changes over which they have no control. Newly-emerging facts sometimes call for quick action if the organization is to survive. Where there is trust, a leader can make those decisions and tell the subordinates why as time allows. If new information comes in, the decision can be adjusted. And the subordinates can trust that it’s okay even if they don’t know why, even if it seems crazy until they get all the facts.

    We can pretend and wish and hope that bureaucracies and structure and hierarchies will somehow fade away like the dew after the morning sun comes out but the fact is that bureaucracies serve a purpose: accountability. Good, intelligent leaders recognize that front-line staff know what’s truly happening down and dirty in the streets–the nitty-gritty realities and details that they don’t have time to notice directly. They also know they need that information, and they seek it out so they can make an informed decision. Front-line workers often don’t know, and don’t care to know, all the problems and logistics that face a large organization at the forest level. They’re dealing with trees. To mix metaphors, some fight alligators. That’s their job. Others drain the swamp. That’s their job. Neither is easy. Both may be essential.

    A blend of involving people in decisions that affect them, along with “Because I said so–that’s all I have time to tell you about it now” is best.

    …or so I believe!

  11. Dan,

    I cannot agree more about the absolute need for maximum transparency. Humans are often fooled into thinking they can control information by restricting access to it. In reality information has “a life of its own.” It changes as humans interact with it and tends to propagate.

    Give folks half the story, and they will create the missing part on their own — based on the information they have — and it will most likely be wrong. Release the rest of your “accurate” information and guess what…the bad information does not go away. Some folks will still believe the creation, some will believe your new information, but remember the created filler and wonder about the differences, and others will refuse to believe either story. Both stories will exist and further speculation will continue. It will live on the Internet forever…I know this is true because I Googled myself and found comments I posted to a discussion list in 1993!

    I think my dad said it best, while advising his eldest son: “Tell ’em the whole story, and tell ’em the whole truth…it’s easier.” He also told me I could spot a liar, because: “He’ll use the longest words to tell the longest story with the least information.” He tended to trust folks who “had nothing to hide,” and advised me to become a curmudgeon — because curmudgeons “won’t try to sweet talk you into buying anything!” He never felt that ethics belonged on a continuum and never again trusted anyone who lied to him. Not everyone liked him, but I never met anyone who did not respect and trust him. I miss him greatly.

    Wherever I have worked, I tended to become the “Devil’s Advocate,” and recommended full transparency to engender trust and improve customer service and employee loyalty. (It is just a coincidence that I’m currently unemployed…)

    Whenever I am tempted to spin the truth a bit, hide behind the infamous “because I said so,” or lie (black or white), an image of those ice-blue eyes pops into my head — and I once again realize the value of a good name, of the respect due to those who always tell the whole truth, and the inestimable value of being an honest and ethical father to my children. As with my dad, it has not always made my employment experience an easy one…but I can sleep at night and look anyone in the eye. Thanks, Dad.

    And thanks, Dan for bringing up this topic!

    Mick McKellar

  12. I still say it! And I still mean it when I am talking to my kids! I am not sure that our goal toward transparency does much more than teach us the responders to inquiries, how to come up with more compound answers that in actuality really mean nothing.

    Sometimes No, just means No! ~The TIP Lady

  13. I know I’m a little late on this, but I really wanted to comment on this article. I totally agree that both business and non-profits should open up the reams of secrecy that pervade their cultures.

    The website guidestar (and other’s like it) were a major boost to non-profit transparency by making available all 501(c)3 non-profits 990 tax forms. This allows prospective donors to genuinely research important information about organizations. A truly innovative company. Plus, if your a great non-profit, you love this service because it shows people how fantastic your organization is run.

    I particularly believe the corporate world would benefit GREATLY by opening the doors of transparency. The problem of course is those with the most power and influence do not have much motivation to become transparent, they would rather use their power and $$$ to simply placate the consumer.

    Take this example, lets say a group of interested parties got together and determined every major piece of data in the manufacture of peanut butter. Examples might include:
    -Working conditions (employee pay, work site accident rates, violations in regulations, etc) at peanut factory
    -Working conditions at peanut harvesting farm
    -Distance peanuts travel in process (to help determine enviromental impact)
    These are just a few examples. Now lets say every peanut butter company agreed to simply release the data on these 30 (or however many) data sets.

    I bring up this example because of the recent peanut butter salmonella scare. From what I understand, the company that was mainly at fault had MULTIPLE violations of the code, including continuous problems with rodents and birds inside their facilities. Unfortunately it wasn’t prevented because the main motivation for this company was to not get CAUGHT. The motivation should have been to prevent the problems in the first place. Transparency would place the motivator on proactive problem-solving for companies, instead of reactionary, manipulative problem solving.

    I personally as the consumer would NEVER analyze this data myself, but with today’s technology and ability to collaborate, I am positive that the release of this type of data would allow a multitude of perspectives to analysis the data and report on it. What I as the consumer would be willing to do is read up on a few reports about peanut butters manufacturing and use that information to make the best buying decision.

    This could be replicated for almost any product. Think if you could find out the exact distance that your lettuce traveled to get to your plate and the exact chemicals that were used in it’s production. Think if we could easily and simply analysis the working conditions of shoe companies in Asia before we decided on Nike or New Balance. I know I would use this information to make a more informed buying decision no matter what I bought.

    This level of transparency would obviously be great for those companies that do the right thing and innovate. So it will need to be those companies that step up and raise the bar. Only then will we be able to aptly pressure the companies who are currently placating consumers instead of being transparent. Thanks for this great post Dan.

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