Powerful Transparency

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.

About a year ago we were asked to help a promising executive who was struggling in his new role.  Jason had been heavily recruited for his technical expertise, his track record of innovation, and his willingness to be a “change agent” in an otherwise careful and conservative organization.  The problem was that he was experienced as too aggressive, overly ambitious, and as someone who did not understand the culture of the company.  He received critical feedback from peers and direct reports in his 360 feedback process and his boss was alarmed by hearing 3rd party criticism about Jason’s style. Jason had been hired to be a change agent in a world of scientists. And yet he was seen as ambitious, pushy, abrasive and unsuccessful in driving change.

Jason was confused and resentful.  A strong introvert, he responded by communicating less and pushing harder.  Yet when we had an opportunity to interview Jason, we experienced a passionate and caring man who was driven by his dedication to finding a cure for a disease that had claimed the life of his father.  He made this decision at the age of fifteen, which had influenced all subsequent career decisions.

As you read this account, think about what happens when others’ perceptions of us do not match our real intentions.  What happens when we feel deeply misunderstood – when our deep passion is not recognized or appreciated?  Do you make a choice to move on – to leave your current situation and look for a place where you can feel more appreciated?  Or do you put your head down and try even harder to push through it?  Or is there a middle ground….a way to bridge the gap between intention and behavior?

Jason clearly needed to realize when his push for change outpaced the tolerance of his company’s culture.  He needed to have a greater line of sight into the impact his behavior had on others.  And he needed to acknowledge the difficult position of change agents who are tasked with taking actions that push the existing culture into discomfort.  But in this case behavior change alone was unlikely to create lasting trust and drive the needed changes within his team.

Jason’s focus on increasing his transparency to others was an important part of his coaching plan.  His peers needed to understand his deeper intentions and his passion which led to his drive for results.  They needed to know that his ambition was not about increasing personal recognition or climbing the corporate ladder, but about something deeper and more meaningful.  And Jason needed to understand that to succeed meant that he had to work through others – both peers and direct reports.  The key for him involved increasing his transparency leading to increased trust in the eyes of his team.

We structured a meeting agenda in which Jason asked his peers to describe what was really important to them – why they were engaged in this line of work.  And he went first.  He told them about his father and the decisions that have driven his life. He told them how difficult it was for him in the company. And he asked for their help. As his team began to understand his real intention, they rallied around him and began to understand each other’s goals and the real priorities of the team. They made agreements on how to support one another going forward, how to give ongoing feedback and feedforward on a regular basis, and how to deal with conflict when it arose.  They began to work as a team rather than a collection of brilliant individuals and drove this alignment to the next level inside the organization.

The continued success of this team, and of Jason, was driven by increased transparency – the ability of those around him to read his intent and see behind his surface behaviors.  And this allowed Jason to show more of his humanity and to translate his drive into team success and a win for his organization.

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