The Transparency Paradox

With widespread acceptance that the future of business meetings will be a combination of in-person and virtual, questions about transparency in governance have arisen among REALTOR® associations and their members. These questions are shaking up our long-held understanding of when to meet in executive sessions and who can participate.

The question is whether deliberations on sensitive topics should be done “in public.” How should associations respond to member requests for more openness, communication, and accountability from their elected leaders, given the expanded capacity to reach people?

Robert’s Rules of Order dictates that board meetings are generally open to the members of the board and any staff or advisers they choose to invite. But the board may opt to close meetings to rank-and-file members or the public whenever it sees fit.

In the name of openness and transparency, many professional and trade associations have decided that board meetings should be open to members and have added this provision to their bylaws. Many of us believe that transparency and openness are the best default position and should inform the way an association conducts business.

Maryland REALTORS® has always allowed any member to observe board meetings. When we went virtual, however, we needed to make accommodations for attendees who were not participants. We now livestream board and executive committee meetings as webinars and have seen an encouraging increase in member engagement in association governance.

Policies and practices established in the name of transparency have benefits. That said, they can be counterproductive when applied without regard to board privacy. Boards function most effectively when they can balance transparency and privacy.

Inhibiting Information Exchange

A theory called the Transparency Paradox says it’s critical for leaders to temper transparency with zones of privacy because being watched can result in less-than-optimal performance. According to the theory, people operate most effectively in environments where they can be open with one another about what they know and don’t know, change their minds, and place more importance on the success of the group than on their own performance.

Boards might respond to member scrutiny by “performing” as expected in public meetings—simply presenting reports or discussing noncontroversial topics. They then might call executive sessions more often to “hide” their debate and actions while dealing with substantive issues, representing a decrease in transparency to would-be observers. Hence the paradox.

To avoid a climate that inhibits discourse, board members should be open and intentional—transparent—in seeking all available information about members’ needs and interests. But they should keep board deliberations, member voting records, and other sensitive decisions private to allow the board to consider diverse points of view and have the difficult conversations that are essential to organizational performance.

When you encounter a problem of sufficient complexity that the board should be free to discuss it privately, an executive session is appropriate to create a zone of privacy for a free and frank discussion. Association executives should participate in all executive sessions unless the meeting pertains to their own salary or performance.

Members’ desire for transparency can be satisfied with the tools and resources used to gather information, as well as by the timely communication of important board decisions. But you can use executive sessions strategically to provide a zone of comfort for decision-makers.

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