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Navigating the Boundary Between Transparency and Discretion

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June 22, 2023
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cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus


This past week I received notice that Communities magazine is planning its winter issue on the theme of Privacy and Transparency. Reflecting on that inspired this monograph.

As a process consultant, I frequently get hired to work with groups bogged down in conflict—often intractable conflict, by which I mean the group has tried what it can think of doing on its own, and it's still stuck in the swamp.

Aside from the challenge of inviting groups into the chaotic, yet potent world of emotional exploration (which is always an element of conflict), whenever a portion of my work is done on the side—in contrast with working the dynamic in the presence of the entire group—there arises a question about what, if anything, that gets disclosed in the examination is appropriate to share with the rest of the group.

Coming from the perspective of professional counseling and/or HR concerns, there is often a strong urge to shut it down, promising protagonists that nothing shared in the process of working through the conflict will be revealed to others. While well intended, I think, in the context of community, this is a big mistake.

Better, I believe, is that the group offer support to members working through conflict with the understanding from the outset that a summary of what comes out in the exploration will be shared with the rest of the group. Mind you, a summary—not a court transcript or a Zoom recording.

Here's how I think it should be set up. Someone should be assigned to drafting a neutral summary ahead of time (so that they are doing the work of gathering the needed information from the get-go), and after it has been drafted it should then be reviewed by the protagonists for acceptability before it's disseminated to the group. I think it's fine that this information not be shared outside the community except with the express permission of the people involved.

To be clear, a good summary will include mention of people's emotional responses—that's part of the story. However, I know from experience (having personally crafted any number of these summaries) that you can adequately defang outbursts, such that you're accurately reporting the reactions, yet leaving out any name-calling or incendiary statements. This is not about voyeurism; it's about getting an overall sense of the full picture. Neglecting to mention that people are hopping mad (when in fact they are) doesn't help anyone understand what's truly happening.

Why do this? For a number of reasons:

• It's quite rare that no one in the group is aware of the tension being worked on, and in the absence of first-hand information about what's happening, people will speculate or make up stories to fill the void. A century ago, Mark Twain sagely observed, "A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots." Better, I think, is supplying the truth with slip-on footwear with good traction.

• Trust and good relationships are the lifeblood of community. Anything that impedes the flow of accurate information, however well-intentioned, degrades trust.

• One of the ways that bullies control the narrative and undercut attempts to hold them accountable for unacceptable behavior, is by isolating people and thereby dominating the story about what happened between themselves and others. It's their word against yours, and they'll make you pay for speaking out against them. (if you question whether people could really get away with such outrageous behavior, you need look no further than the popularity Donald Trump has enjoyed through outright lying, and attacking anyone who dares stand up to him.) It's much harder for this approach to be successful when everyone is current on what's going down.

• It's not unusual for the parties involved in the conflict to make agreements about doing things differently going forward, and these commitments tend to carry more gravitas when posted publicly (I'm not talking about printing minutes in the local newspaper; I'm talking about sharing summaries on the members-only community listserv).

• Agreements made in the dynamic moment may be abundantly clear, yet that clarity is susceptible to serious erosion if not captured in writing. People's memories tend to diverge over time and hard-earned agreements have a way of slipping away if you're not diligent and capturing them in the moment.

• There can be confusion about what the Conflict Support Team is doing if they never report on their activities. How can the community reasonably evaluate the performance of a team that operates in secrecy?

• When members work through tensions and reestablish repaired relationship, that's a success. Rather than worry about everyone knowing details about how you may have messed up, think of the benefit of everyone knowing how you owned up to deleterious impact, and labored to put things right.

• There is a marked tendency for people to behave better when they know that everyone is watching, or will be told how they behaved in a session set up to work through conflict.

A community is not just a random group of strangers—it's an aggregation of people who have explicitly agreed to create a cooperative culture based on a known vision and common values. They have committed to healthy relationships with one another, and cleaning up missteps as they occur. As a result, there is a different standard of compassion, accountability, and engagement and I am basing my recommendations on what will best serve those goals. Burying dirt under the carpet will not get the job done. It only leads to lumpy floors, and poor footing going forward.

All of that said, you cannot expect group members to be of one mind about this without a conversation about its implications. That means you have to talk about how you want handle this at the time you establish the Conflict Support Team, and before you need to apply it to a specific situation—when the discussion will tend to be seen through the lens of how to manage a particular person, rather than what's best as a standard for everyone.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

One more point. Although I support a baseline understanding that nothing gets disseminated about what occurred in a conflict clearing without the people involved in the conflict signing off on the summary, there is a circumstance where I think protagonists should not be permitted to block the sharing of discovered information—when the facilitators learn that something happened (or is reasonably likely to have happened) that puts the community at serious risk. 

I'm thinking about major financial exposure, illegal activity, compromised member safety, a direct violation of a member agreement… those kinds of things. While such occurrences are rare (thankfully), they are not unknown, and there needs to be a clear path whereby the community is promptly informed about what has been learned, so that it can complete any investigation of events and determine the best course forward. 

Note that if this occurs, the follow-up should be managed by a different configuration of people—not by the Conflict Support Team, as it's outside their mandate.


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