When I Can’t Be Transparent

September 6, 2007

I am in full support of the transparent library concept and try to apply the ideas into my management style. I am a huge fan of open communication and the encouragement of discussion. I also like the focus on trend spotting as a means of innovation and improvement. I encourage my staff to come to me or their supervisors with ideas for improvement and with problems or issues that they encounter in their daily work.

However, I have noticed a similarity in the one on one conversations I have been having as of late and I am wondering how other people in my shoes have handled this.

I am having a lot of discussions about what can generally be described as personnel or performance issues. I am pretty positive that in the working world the complaint or sentiment of, “I work harder/faster/better/more than so and so” is universal, and while that is not the entire message I am hearing from staff, it is a part of it. I think the basic disgruntledness I am hearing has to do with issues that they perceive as not being dealt with or are being allowed to persist. It goes without saying that these issues are all personnel and performance in nature, so therein lies the rub.

How can I be transparent in my communication with my staff when the nature of such issues requires my discretion?

I was kind of joking around this week and remarking that I should send a mass email out on a weekly basis listing, in detail, everyone infractions and what type of reprimand they received. I am pretty sure that would cause a revolt.

I take staff privacy extremely seriously and do not share the details of their performance with anyone who does not have to know (namely each other). I respect everyone’s privacy, but I can understand how since no one knows the intimate details, they may assume that nothing is happening.

So how do you reassure while being discrete? I have my list of non-committal stock answers that I have been using and it seems to assuage each situation, but I wonder if there is something else I should be doing.

When it comes to reprimanding or better yet, addressing and working to change poor performance or work habits the responsibility is really on the individual to change. My responsibility is to address the issue and then to follow-up as necessary. If the performance does not improve there are definite paths I can take with noticeable outcomes.

But it is really that beginning and middle time in that spectrum where it seems really nebulous to everyone and it can seem like nothing really has been done and no changes are being made.

I place privacy and discretion on a higher rung than transparency. I guess this may be a battle that has no clear winner?

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4 Responses to “When I Can’t Be Transparent”

  1. Laura said

    If you come up with the solution, do let me know!

  2. heatherm said

    I agree this is a difficulty issue, and most of the time my philosophy is that staff should mind their own business when it comes to the performance issues of their co-workers. However, that’s often easier said than done, as one staff members’ poor performance often impacts dramatically on the working lives of his/her co-workers. If you’ve ever worked alongside someone who avoids any strenuous work at all costs, you will understand how frustrating it is to be working twice as hard to compensate for that individual’s laziness or incompetence. In truth, I often find myself sympathizing with the staff member who wants some kind of assurance that the problem is being addressed.

    What I usually say is something to the effect of: “I appreciate that you have shared your concerns with me, and I hope you trust that I take them seriously, and am taking steps to resolve the problem you’ve identified.” I don’t hesitate to tell them that there are some things they don’t have the right to know, and that I may not be able to share with them the outcome or resolution to the problem. I find most staff do understand that confidentiality is necessary – they just suspect that managers sometimes hide behind it as a way of avoiding the issue. If you can manage to gain their trust through your actions in all other aspects of your relationship with them, they are much more likely to trust that you are “doing the right thing” even when you can’t illustrate to them that you are.

    Another difficulty is that the solution that your staff want to see is not always (in fact, rarely is) the correct or workable solution to the problem. In other words, staff expect the poor performer to be demoted, fired, or some other highly visible punishment. When that doesn’t happen (because you’ve worked out a complex performance counselling/retraining program with the individual designed to gradually bring them up to standard) – of course everyone feels as though nothing has been done. An unfortunately, I find that even when a poor performer makes great progress and improves his/her performance, it can take years to undo the perceptions of other staff, who have labelled the individual based on their past experiences with him/her. I don’t think it is human nature to cut people any slack when they are trying to improve themselves!

    So, the bottom line is, I don’t really have any solutions either, but I do have some approaches I use for dealing with staff’s questions when they come up, and sometimes I just live with the fact that some staff are going to be dissatisfied when you don’t do exactly what they think you should.

  3. Mary Carmen said

    All great points Heather. I have been pretty much doing almost all of what you suggested. I feel much better knowing that other managers are thinking about this also and that I am not alone in my approach and how I handle these situations. Thanks for all your excellent feedback!

  4. Cathy said

    I can empathise with what you’re experiencing as I’ve had the same problems myself. The only suggestion I can make is to try and work out a way in which you may be able to let the other staff know that the problem is being worked on. In the past when this has happened to me I have negotiated with the staff member with ‘the problem’ how much can be passed on to the other staff, as I have explained that they can offer support if they understand a bit more of what is going on. I have found this to be quite successful for all concerned.

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