WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

6. Why the Rules Need to be Challenged

In his book on the ways things really get done – in the ‘shadows’ of organisational life – Gerard Egan says:

“Essentially the shadow side consists of all the important activities and arrangements that do not get identified, discussed and managed in decision-making forums that can make a difference.  The shadow side deals with the covert, the undiscussed and the undiscussable, and the unmentionable. It includes arrangements not found in organizational manuals and company documents or on organizational charts.” (Gerard Egan, Working the Shadows [1994] Josey Bass Publishers)

By allowing change programmes to become overly concerned with the careful orchestration of image and perception, we actively foster the development of ‘shadow programmes’.

The public face of the programme – its governance, control, delivery processes etc. – purport to be the whole story. But actually, the key debates happen and key decisions are taken in private, in the shadows.

Not a very edifying prospect, especially in the public sector, with its drive for increased accountability against the backdrop of expensive and high-profile change programme failures.

7. What Should Be Done?

Egan advises that disclosure is generally the best policy:

“Dealing with the shadow-side effectively means getting attuned to the way it works – being able to identify important shadow-side issues and bring them into the open… not every shadow-side arrangement, once identified, should be brought into a public forum. On the other hand, critical shadow-side issues that should be discussed in some decision making forum often stay buried.”

But does not disclosure do great harm, as those in authority would have us believe? Fundamentally, disclosure of political positions and manoeuvres rarely harms anything important. It will be somewhere between awkward and eye-wateringly embarrassing for the parties involved, but is not truly harmful. And I don’t just mean from an ethical perspective, I’m also considering practical utility.

Playing by the rules means joining a tacit conspiracy to keep real opinions and issues off the table. If the primary motivation for doing so is a desire to avoid difficult conversations, then we need to challenge ourselves hard.

As a consultant I have seen many instances of difficult (i.e. negative) performance management conversations being endlessly deferred by clients. Sometimes this has allowed a person to stay in post for years without having to deal with serious performance issues – issues that bosses and colleagues alike are very happy to discuss at length in private, but that are never brought to the table with the person concerned.

Why is this the case? All sorts of reasons are given but fundamentally this is a failure of leadership. Leadership demands the ability to confront incompetence, and much more unpalatable issues such as personal animosity, and deal with them in a firm, balanced but resolute way.

In the absence of leadership a change programme’s facade becomes an obstacle: we cannot say this or that because, when we’ve had the opportunity to say so before, we’ve concocted some ‘weasel words’ to get us out of the situation and minimise adverse stakeholder reaction.

4 thoughts on “WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

  1. Insightful – one thing that occurs to me is that the multitude of communication media available to us all make it incredibly easy to avoid ‘difficult’ or ‘honest’ conversations. So we email, text or IM, in fact anything to avoid a productive duplex conversation. IMHO we are getting worse, not better, at leadership and communication.

    As for Wikileaks we now know that some people thought (amongst other startling revelations) that George Osborne and David Cameron were inexperienced…. no shit sherlock. As the author says – there is nothing remotely earth shattering here – just some one who doesnt want to play the game and no, remarkably, is branded a sex pest. Well I never

    1. Rich – I endorse your comments.

      Your perspective on communications and technology is especially interesting. So-called enabling technology (everything from email to groupware & social media) has exponentially increased our ability to fire off vast volumes of often very abbreviated and ambiguous messages. Like mortar shells, we only have a very approximate idea of what happens when they land.

      We have been seduced into thinking that this = communication. It doesn’t: we’ve lost the ability to identify instances where nuance and subtlety require face-to-face, or at least verbal, interaction. And for those of us who regard these modes of communication as a chore (sadly, this includes too many people in leadership positions) it has provided a ready made excuse to actually avoid interaction.

      I will be posting a longer comment on technology & communication in the next few days.

      Thanks very much for your feedback.


  2. Attack is the best defence. The US Govt has only itself to blame. It circulated these cables to a distribution list of 3 million, it is claimed. It also prior argued that full transparency makes government accountable. What did it expect? Now it has egg on its face. It reminds me of organisations that create awful internal bureaucracies and then blame the government for imposing bureaucracy, hoping to divert responsibility elsewhere. This is shadow-side behaviour. Leaders need to rise above these word games and examine what they are doing in the first place that gives rise to them. By exercising crude power (e.g. on companies to boycott Wikileaks) makes you look less powerful. As Gordon Brown’s memoir says, the more powerful Fred Goodwin became the more he complained and undermined his power.

    1. Appreciated Bill – I find myself in warm agreement with your stance.

      I am increasingly impatient with organisational posturing and pretence around transparency, openness and honesty (and indeed other ubiquitously quoted, inherently ‘good’ values).

      This pretence can be seen in public and private organisations, from national governments to global corporations. These motherhood values are advertised as being part of the organization’s DNA. When someone applies the values too literally however (and exposes a little hypocrisy, for example) the organization’s reaction is to pull the iron fist from the velvet glove and attempt to crush the ‘dissident’.

      Before someone accuses me of being a ‘bleeding heart’, I’m reconciled to iron fist-type organizations being successful and even necessary in some contexts. What I cannot be reconciled to is the systematic cloaking of intentions and the careful disguising of true organizational character.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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