Tuesday, December 29, 2015

When It's OK to Close Meetings

The overarching theme of this blog is articulating what it takes to build and sustain cooperative culture—as distinct from the mainstream competitive culture from which we come—and why we need to be doing that as one of our top social change priorities.

Much of what I write about is how this plays out in meetings of groups that are ostensibly committed to cooperative culture yet are still feeling their way into it (it turns out that there are a great many more people who share an analysis of how competitive culture fails to address issues of fairness and long-term sustainability than there are people who have done the personal work needed to unlearn competitive responses in the dynamic moment: when the stakes are high and you encounter disagreement or resistence).

One aspect of cooperative culture that I've written about a number of times previously is transparency. Reference the following entries:
Acceptable Risk • Jan 13, 2015
Collateral Healing • May 30, 2015
The Challenge of Hybrid Governance • Oct 22, 2015
Balancing Transparency & Confidentiality • April 22, 2009
Balancing Transparency and Discretion • July 31, 2014
Balancing Transparency and Discretion, Part II • March 28, 2015
Essentially, transparency is joined at the hip with trust. If groups want to succeed in developing cooperative culture there needs to be a high level of trust and that means a high level of transparency. Let me give you an example.

Earlier this month I was working with a grocery that had just made the switch from being a sole proprietorship to being a co-op. As incentive to keep the staff that had been working under the old management, workers had been offered a retention bonus based on gross sales. As it happened, I was present for the meeting at which the sales numbers for November—their first month operating as a co-op—were shared with staff. While the board was worried that the staff might react badly because sales were down 20% from November a year ago (which translated to a smaller bonus), in fact, the staff responded very positively because, for the first time, they were given a peek behind the financial curtain. They had never before been given that kind of detail about the grocery's finances and they were enthusiastic about helping to turn things around. It was clear that being committed to transparency went a long ways toward breaking down the traditional barriers between staff and management.

In this essay, I want to drill down on one particular aspect of transparency: the degree to which meetings are open. In general, I urge cooperative groups to have the least barriers possible in this respect, such that the default is that meetings (as well as the minutes summarizing what happened at them) are open to the public. That said, I think there are three reasons why cooperative groups might reserve the right to temporarily meet in closed session:

I. Personnel Sensitivity
There are times when frankness trumps transparency—when the need to honestly express feelings and reservations is more important than letting everyone hear everything. In many instances, people are uncomfortable voicing hesitancies or concerns about someone in their presence. Let's look at three situations where this might apply:

A. Selection
This can come in two forms: 1) when you're evaluating candidates to fill a job or a committee slot; or 2) when you're assessing nominees to receive an award or honor. In either case you want to be able to thoroughly discuss the pros and cons of candidates without worrying about hurting anyone's feelings.

B. Performance Evaluation
Here the situation is different in that the person already has been given an assignment and you want to examine carefully both how they're meeting expectations and how they may be falling short. Often the person's presence (or their unabashed allies) can inhibit the full expression of shortcomings.

C. Firing (Involuntary Loss of Rights)
Though the least common of the three, it is often crucial that the group examine carefully whether there are sufficient grounds for imposing sanctions on a member, and that due process has been followed before taking action. This consideration will tend to go much better in a closed session where the person in question is not present.

In all three of these cases, I would support there being a closed session, with the understanding that the people being discussed will receive a private in-person summary of what was discussed at the earliest opportunity. This is an important caveat.

II. Political Sensitivity
For some groups (such as networks or nonprofits) there can arise questions about relationships with sister organizations where you want the consideration to happen in-house until a course of action is settled upon, with the agreement that you have not completed the conversation until you've explicitly decided what to share with whom about what was discussed.

III. As a Substitute for Member Screening
People are sometimes selected to be a member (say, of a board) for reasons of networking or bridge building—that is, the person has valuable ties to a group or target population that you want to explicitly cultivate, yet you may not trust that they'll use appropriate discretion if sensitive information is openly shared with them. Thus, you may establish an Executive Committee comprised of board members and staff that have demonstrated an ability to be discrete and to think strategically, that is empowered to occasionally meet in closed session for the purpose of discussing sensitive matters as they arise.

This way you can stretch to include allies in board selection without compromising the group's ability to handle tough, potentially volatile topics as needed. As in the other examples above, it's important that the closed group commit to providing to the full board a decent summary of the discussion, without making inflammatory comments.

For everything else, I say to the sun shine in.

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