Honesty, Leadership and Professional Opportunity

I’ve only had two opportunities to work directly with volunteer groups while at NACHRI, and both times I’ve apparently put my foot in my mouth (and gotten reprimanded for it) because I answered a direct question honestly (some would, I’m sure, say bluntly) rather than giving the politically correct answer (which to me feels an awful lot like lying).

And I’m starting to wonder: is it me or is it the system? A lot of associations complain that our volunteer leaders are disengaged or make unrealistic demands or just don’t understand the reality in which we operate. But is it our fault? Are we, in an effort not to hurt anyone’s feelings or upset them, holding back too much information?

And this is far from just a NACHRI thing – I’ve seen it at every association I’ve worked for or with as a consultant. If we can’t be honest with our members about the hard realities, how on earth can we expect them to be willing and able to make hard, realistic choices?

Ultimately, of course, I’m starting to wonder what kind of (presumably negative?) effect this tendency is likely to have on my long-term career prospects. I’d like to be a CEO/ED some day, but if it requires not being honest with members or volunteers about something that affects them, I’m not sure I can do it.

Maybe I’m seeing this too black and white. But it doesn’t feel that way. And maybe we need to trust our members and volunteers to be the grown ups they are and realize that they don’t need to be handled with kid gloves, and ultimately, it benefits neither them nor our organizations.

6 thoughts on “Honesty, Leadership and Professional Opportunity”

  • Well I've been pondering this a little since it was an fb post because I have the similar issues sometimes. We have a brand new ED over in my corner of the non-profit universe, and he is self described “direct.” Frankly I like him and his approach. I think so long as there is honest and open debate, all sides are heard, and everybody understands/is reminded that we're all on the same “side” of caring about the long term interests and goals of the organization, an honest approach can work. I hope, anyway.

    Also, I think there may be something about being in the top spot that makes people expect you to be a little more blunt and less deferential. So, whereas you and I get smacked down, the CEO class may at least be in a better position to pull it off. (Somehow, as I type this, it seems completely devoid of insight, so, I can only hope that it is helpful.)

  • This is not just you or your organization.

    There is a natural tendency to “shoot the messenger.” Because of this no one wants to give anyone higher up in an organization any bad news. And if being honest with the customer from within such an organization means giving them bad news, that's the worst of all.

    This culture can be changed, but that change must come from the top down. Even if you are lucky enough to work in such an outfit, there is always a certain amount of diplomacy required when dealing with the public, if the public has any influence at all on your organization's survival.

    And as we all know, “diplocmacy” often consists of saying “nice doggy” while desperately searching for a rock.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks. This is definitely a conundrum, and I don't think it's restricted to the association world. I do think it's worse in the association world, though, precisely because we have members rather than customers (with all that that implies).

    Also Peregrin's last sentence? HEE!

  • Boy, don't get me started on this one! See my blog posts on truth. This is not a conundrum. You have identified a key element of how we all need to start acting in organizations today. It's not career-limiting for you to tell the truth. It's future-limiting for organizations to punish you for doing so. You owe it to yourself–and your career–to bring truth to what's happening in your community, and I for one will always thank you for it, even if it were to be uncomfortable for me for any reason.

  • To follow on Jamie's comment, why would you want to work for (or volunteer for) an organization that PUNISHES truth telling?!?

    Employees (and volunteers) who play along are enabling this awful behavior.


    Wes Trochlil
    Effective Database Management, LLC

    Author of “Put Your Data to Work: 52 Tips and Techniques for Effectively Managing Your Database,” published by ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership and available from ASAE: http://tinyurl.com/dyw9y2

  • You can be direct without being offensive. I've been an Executive Director for my entire career and I've always been direct – but diplomatic.

    I don't know what you did or said, but there are a lot of ways to be truthful and tactful at the same time.

    If you have to deliver bad news, provide a path that people can follow to make the situation less bad.

    But remember not to question an individual volunteer's commitment, motives, or work ethic – even if they deserve to be questioned.

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