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Integrity has no need of rules.

Albert Camus

We all hold secrets, those parts of ourselves that are too vulnerable to share with others. Communities and organizations hold secrets as well, woven into the culture that has been created and sometimes purposefully kept quiet to avoid embarrassment or address change.

In cases where such secrets are suddenly revealed—by whistleblowers, outside investigators, or other organizations—the pace of change and need for responsiveness can both overwhelm an organization and create opportunities for transformation.

Often this transformation occurs not simply in a single organization, but across an industry—we are still seeing changes take place and damage control needed in the financial industry after years of hidden practices and a culture of secrecy were exposed in one of the worst economic crises in a generation.

It might be that the recent case of work conditions at Foxconn also generates similar changes in labor practices in China and beyond.

What is possible when we face such secrets—in an organization or business, in our family or community, in our government or culture—is an initial discomfort and awkwardness which allows us to call into question our true values and whether or not we are in alignment with them.

It is common to see organizations—particularly in the work of sustainability and social change—who are passionately dedicated to fairness, stewardship, health and similar values who champion the rights of others but don’t model these practices internally.

This can often be the deepest secret in an organization, embedded in its DNA and perpetuated by a founder, leader, Board or staff not surfacing and dealing with internal challenges. Eventually this can build, and lead to mistrust, burnout, turnover, and organizational ineffectiveness. In the most extreme cases, organizations can shut down because of organizational secrecy and dishonesty.

Finding a supportive environment and process for talking about the challenges we face—interpersonally, organizationally, or culturally—is a critical first step in beginning to cultivate greater transparency and is essential to building practices that cultivate sustainability both internally and externally.

In places where a bold, yet appropriate, strategy is pursued for unearthing organizational secrets, I have seen organizations cast off old ways of doing things and shed the burden of keeping the unspeakable held close; and in all cases, this increases both internal satisfaction and external effectiveness. In the best of circumstances, it can lead to breakthroughs that change our practice—even when revealing organizational secrets comes as a surprise or via an exposé.

Oftentimes, there are opportunities to address secrets buried within our organizational cultures that present themselves in individual conversations or at organizational retreats. Ensuring that they move from moments in time to a process that shifts the organizational culture is a challenging transition.

There is tremendous risk in honesty, and significant reward as well in affecting a change that can more fully support your organization and the pursuit of its mission.

Here are some initial practices that support bringing secrets to light:

  • Find allies. Is this something that you are seeing and experiencing, or do others in the organization feel similarly? Try to connect with trusted colleagues about what you are seeing, and try to approach this from a solutions-oriented rather than critical perspective. Critique, which is a natural inclination, often creates an atmosphere of gossip, and births a second secret inside the first.
  • Frame the issue. If there is an opportunity to speak safely with a leader in the organization about this, and can you raise the issue appropriately, illustrating the effect it has on staff and overall organizational performance?
  • Seek support. Consult confidentially with others in your organization, or with colleagues in other organizations whom you trust. Find resources and learn from those who have experienced similar situations or have expertise in culture change and conflict resolution. Particularly if this is a divisive issue—or in cases where there is an illegal practice or you fear retribution—get help from trusted colleagues.
  • Propose pathways to change. Once you have some internal and external support, you may feel more comfortable making a case within your organization or company for a process to address some of these issues. Calmly demonstrating a few examples of how the organization’s performance or practice might improve if secrets are revealed, discussed, and addressed is always helpful.
  • Act responsibly (aka “Don’t try this at home!”). Often, if there is some openness in an organization, a conversation about such issues supported by leadership can be productive. In larger organizations (or where the secrets are larger or more entrenched), it is best to find internal or external support for navigating what might be a challenging process.

FEATURED RESOURCE:  Organizational Truth-telling

One of my mentors and teachers Erline Belton was among the first to share the profound importance and transformative power of organizational truth-telling, and her 2004 article in the NonProfit Quarterly, Truth or Consequences: The Organizational Importance of Honesty still serves a great resource that I refer to and share with colleagues.


FEATURED POEM: The Mystery by Dorothy Walters

We all have different relationships to the secrets or mysteries that we encounter, and Dorothy Walters speaks beautifully to the range of approaches we can take…


The Mystery

Some come at it

with weights and measures,

some waving a sieve.


Some sing to it,

ballads and carols,

hoping to coax forth

its hidden center,

unwind the sheath

of who it is.


Some tap on it

or deal heavy blows

with hammers,

trying to smash

its thick shield

force it to bow down.


Some seek ways to clamber in,

explore its hidden vaults

and chambers.


Some lie down beside it,

breathe its cool scent,

become its own self.


Dorothy Walters

April 2012