Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Balancing Transparency & Confidentiality

Let’s take a few minutes to take about minutes. While almost all groups understand the need to have a record of their work (to help new members learn what agreements they’ll be expected to abide by, to clarify group policy when memories fade or disagree, and to help those who missed a meeting know what happened), there are aspects to minutes that can very tricky, and I want to discuss creating a record of discussions about sensitive topics. We have to have more nuanced choices than sealed records (maximum confidentiality) and full transcripts (maximum transparency).

For cooperative groups to function well, there needs to be an easy flow of information. When people are left to guess what’s happening, it erodes trust. When minutes are missing, unavailable, vague, or incomplete, the flow of information is compromised, and therefore trust is susceptible to being compromised as well. Governing bodies have to do better than function as a black box, where information goes in and decisions come out.

Probably the most challenging version of this relates to how minutes record sensitive topics. This tends to come in two different forms: reporting on critical comments (such as may naturally emerge in personnel evaluations, or when discussing negotiation strategies), and reporting on emotional distress. Trickiest of all is when these two occur together. Though each could happen separately, sometimes you get the whole enchilada.

In making a recommendation about how to handle this, I think it will help to walk through an example. Suppose there’s a cooperative group that’s large enough to have standing committees, and one of them is the Membership Team. Let’s say that during a Membership Team meeting the competency of the convener is called into question. This person has missed meetings, has failed to coordinate with the Finance Committee about Membership’s budget for the coming year, and accidentally deleted the only copy of two sets of crucial team meeting minutes. Suppose further that the discussion doesn’t go well. The convener feels cornered and gets defensive. Voices are raised, tempers flare, and before long everyone is pissed off. While nothing gets resolved, the meeting ends with an agreement to get help to talk about this further.

What will the minutes say about this?

Scenario A—Report none of the distress
Not being sure how to report distress (without inadvertently creating more), sometimes groups pretend it didn’t happen, at least as far as the official record goes. It’s not hard to imagine the notetaker being nervous about the possibility of being the target of the next vitriolic fusillade if the upset people are upset about the way their upset is reported.

However, think about what happens. Perhaps the rest of the group never finds out—in which case they are forever in the dark about a potentially pivotal event in group history, where serious relationship damage may have occurred. Sudden coolness between protagonists may make no sense to those left uninformed, and it will be awkward trying to puzzle out what portion of future interactions is current and what is attributable to mysterious, unresolved past tensions.

Perhaps some or all of the rest of the group learns of the shouting match. How much better is that when the learning is through the rumor mill, and likely coming indirectly from lopsided sources? This leads to the same quality of clarity as achieved by the proverbial group of blind people describing an elephant after touching different parts. While it will ultimately be obvious to all that the water has been roiled, no one will be able to see clearly what happened for all the mud that’s been stirred up.

Scenario B—Report it all
Working this from the other end, you could tape record all meetings and provide a written transcript, letting the chips fall where they may. Notetakers would be like court reporters. While there would be fairness to this, there's a appreciable chance that it will result in further damage to relationships (people regretting what they said—now that it’s been “spread all over town” they fear that mole hills will become mountains; people embarrassed by what they said—their mortification will be compounded by having "everyone" know; misunderstandings arising from the transcript’s lacking the context of body language, tone, and facial expression). It’s important to understand that the truth can be used as a weapon, and that backing off from sharing fully can be the more judicious and effective choice.

Further, if people fear how their statements will be understood (even if recorded accurately), then they’ll be more cautious in what they say and this can undercut the candor and authenticity that groups need to function at a high level.

Scenario C—Report the TV Guide summary
One in-between option would be to craft a short summarizing minute such as, “The team got into a heated conversation about the competency of one member and determined to ask for help in resolving the tensions.”

This is better in that it acknowledges that distress occurred without repeating any of the incendiary comments that would appear in a transcript (Dale said that Chris was “as dumb as a box of hammers”). That said, there’s still too much vagueness. Who was being criticized, and what were the criticisms? This invites guessing and gins up the rumor mill. I think we can do better.

Scenario D—Report a summary that gets real
Best I think is to get as specific as possible while at the same time staying neutral and non-inflammatory. Thus, the minute might look something like this:

“Part way into the meeting, the discussion veered into questions about Chris’ performance as team convener. Dale, Pat, and Kyle expressed upset about three different things. Chris has: a) missed three team meetings this year so far; b) failed to give the Finance Committee the Membership Team’s 2010 budget requests in a timely way; and c) accidentally deleted the only copy of minutes from two Membership Team meetings.

Chris was not prepared for this impromptu evaluation, and felt attacked. Tempers flared and the conversation broke down. Without coming to any resolution about the substance of the complaints or what to do about them, Chris agreed that the team had a right to discuss convener performance, and that it was fair to examine all the things brought up as the basis for the feedback. However, Chris wanted time to prepare a response, and the assistance of an outside facilitator to handle the potentially charged conversation. The team agreed to this and the topic will be taken up again at the team meeting next month.”

To be clear, I’d strongly advocate that everyone at the team meeting (or at least everyone who raised their voices, ostensibly Chris, Dale, Pat, and Kyle) be given a chance to review this minute before it was posted—you don’t want anyone disavowing it after it’s been made public.

The follow-up meeting may or may not go well (that's a different topic), yet now at least the rest of the group has been brought up to speed, and can help create the container needed to bridge the differences and heal the tensions. In the loop, the rest of the group can be supportive and sympathetic. Out of the loop, there's a tendency to feel irritated and marginalized. Guess which one works better?

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