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Why Transparency Can Become a Bloodbath

by Judy Ryan

“Killers aren’t always assassins. Sometimes, they don’t even have blood on their hands.”
-Ruta Sepetys, Author

I once knew a school teacher who quit her job teaching 8th graders (which she loved) to work for my company transforming school cultures where leaders wanted to learn emotional intelligence skills and healthy human systems for parents, teachers, administrators and students simultaneously. She and I met when she was implementing our human system framework and tools in her school. She recognized the value of helping students manage their own relationships (with themselves, peers, and authority figures – such as parents and teachers), their own productivity, motivation, engagement, plan and proactivity. She experienced firsthand the importance of just such task ownership by adults and children, for effectiveness in life and work.

She’d walk the halls of her former school and see posters of values such as “respect,” “responsibility,” “kindness,” “perseverance,” “tolerance,” and “discipline.” She knew that without her training in a responsibility-based culture model, these posters would be as effective as those saying, “math is important” and “science is foundational” but without a math or science class to ensure such skills. The reason she left the school to work on school reform occurred when one of her students reported bullying by a teacher who threatened him with detention if he did not participate in a “peace pledge”—a promise to “use my words and actions for peace.” Ironic.

I see this same dynamic around other values or behaviors people promote. They encourage authenticity, transparency, love, and more, including the values listed above in the hallways of schools. I agree with them all. However, without setting up conditions and conversations to create psychological safety and trauma-informed functioning, trying to practice values can backfire and cause significant damage at worst or be ineffectual at best.

What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In psychologically safe teams, members feel accepted and respected.

Imagine you are encouraged to be transparent and practice radical honesty at your workplace. While I whole-heartedly agree that both of these behaviors can be life-affirming and enhance performance and teamwork, they can also result in serious negative consequences (aka emotional bloodbaths) when delivered in a setting NOT responsibility-based or designed to promote social interest (care about consequences we cause others). Psychological safety is only possible with agreed-upon concepts and behaviors related to purpose, trustworthiness, accountability and emotional intelligence. They embody ground rules that eliminate negative behaviors like gossip, while improving communications, operationalize purpose and values, and then provide monthly coaching for all members, with no exceptions.

Trauma Informed Conditions
Trauma-informed conditions are defined as behaviors that promote a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing. To LifeWork Systems, these are conditions that ensure people know healthy belonging and significance so they feel empowered, lovable (seen and understood), connected and contributing. Too often, conditions today do NOT ensure safety, empowerment and healing. That’s why an ideal such as transparency or a tool like a peace pledge, in and of themselves, do not guarantee a positive and needed improvement. So, while transparency need not become a bloodbath, make it your priority to ensure the conditions exist in your workplace, home, or other settings that bring out the best in all people, and make it safe for each to be open, honest, and reach for ideals we need to dream and fulfill. Let me help you with those important culture conditions and conversations!

Judy Ryan (, human systems specialist, is owner of LifeWork Systems. Join her in her mission to create a world in which all people love their lives. She can also be reached at 314-239-4727.
People hire LifeWork Systems because we help businesses become agile and manage their priority system: their human system. I hope this article helps you make sense of what’s most crucial to your evolving organization!

Submitted 4 years 268 days ago
Categories: categoryThe Extraordinary Workplace
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