Leaks, Drips, and Spills

Is OSM Ignoring The Elephant Herd Stalking Through The Organization?

11 Nov 2011
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Leaders shouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room or the herds of elephants wandering the hallways.


There are so many to choose from I couldn't list them all. But I have blogged about many of them on this website. And, the result so far?

Silence from OSM.

No action.

But I would imagine the point here is the inability of the OSM leadership to effectively deal with the elephants within their organization. They are either oblivious, ignore them, or accept them. Any of the three are unacceptable.

  • You must address the criticisms directly and promptly. If you cannot respond immediately, then at least immediately acknowledge that the complaint has been read by the organization and a response is coming promptly . A week or more is not prompt in online community conversations.
  • Realize that, no matter what you say, your organization's actions are going to speak much louder than its words. Examples:
    • If you say a response is coming promptly, then it had better come promptly. Again, a week or more is not prompt in online community conversations.
    • Don't just say you welcome criticism -- allow critical messages to be posted to your discussion group or comments board on your blog, so long as such criticisms don't use inflammatory language, encourage criminal behavior, are filled with obvious inaccuracies, include confidential information, aren't verbatim posts from the same person over and over again, etc. (and if you ban such a person, say so to the group, so they know such action has been taken, and WHY).
    • Walk the talk: If you state that your organization engages in activities to recruit a diverse representation of staff and volunteers, it had better be engaging in actions that back up that statement, obviously and clearly. If you claim to be a "green" organization, make sure a television crew walking through or around your office would see activities that demonstrate this.
    • Don't just say your organization is transparent and consults with membership -- show it, in activities that make this quality obvious. In fact, showing it is more important than saying it.
    • Posting a response or two and then asking the debate/discussion to stop will result in people perceiving your organization as not open to criticism, and will result in even more of it.
    In other words, what you do is going to be more powerful than what you say.
  • Contrary to a widely-held belief and frequently-made suggestion, you do not disarm criticism by thanking someone for their feedback in the opening statement of a response; it's been done so often that most people see it as the beginning of a "canned" statement. Save the compliment for somewhere else in your response -- and say it only if you can demonstrate that you truly mean it. Volunteers and clients are much more inclined to trust someone who shows respect for them and for what they say. There are a number of ways that you can give a real indication that you are "hearing" the complaints: ask the critic(s), "What do you think would make this situation better?" or "How do you feel this situation could be improved?". Also, assure critics that their criticisms and suggestions will be represented to the leadership at your organization, and that they will receive an update regarding the leadership's reaction. If the criticism is going to result in a change or action of any kind, or a staff meeting to discuss further action, say so! Offer as many details as possible. Also, if it is appropriate, you could even ask a critic to take part in a staff meeting, or create an online forum specifically to address the criticism.
  • If anything in a criticism is accurate, acknowledge it. That doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with the person. For instance, "You are correct: our organization does not address environmental problems. I understand that such is a very important, even critical issue, but our nonprofit has chosen to focus on preventing the abuse of children, and here's why..." Even better: can you think about the criticism from the person's point of view, and therefore, even agree with some of it? That's a powerful way to turn a critic into a supporter.

    Is the critic actually doing you a favor by offering you feedback that may not have been discovered otherwise, when damage was done to your organization's reputation and credibility? Again, acknowledging a real problem is a powerful way to turn a critic into a supporter.

    If the complaint is legitimate -- for instance, that the organization's past annual reports aren't on the organization's web site, get them up ASAP, and offer an apology for not having done so earlier. Don't try to defend or excuse your original decision not to. Take the lumps with grace and honesty.

  • Some excuses can make a situation even worse, even if they are true, and should be avoided, as they are perceived as red flags for incompetence or mismanagement. Excuses to avoid regarding complaints include:
    • "we didn't have enough money"
    • "we didn't have enough staff"
    • "we didn't have enough time"
    • "we're an all-volunteer organization"
    • "our computer system wasn't working properly"
    • "so-and-so was on vacation at that time"

    Instead, take responsibility. If the critic is pointing out something your organization should have done, but didn't, for whatever reason, accept the criticism. Consider offering a straightforward and sincere apology, and details on how the problem will be addressed.

  • You may need to ask for clarification or more information before you respond to criticism, and that's fine; it will probably be perceived by those watching the online conversation as a very positive step on your part. But don't say, "I don't understand why you are asking these questions" -- every question is legitimate, and should be treated as such.
  • If a complaint doesn't present the whole story, then do so yourself, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. If a complaint is off-base, counter it with indisputable, dispassionate facts. And offer to supply any other facts that will clarify the situation, and ask the original critic if he or she has any questions or comments about the facts as you have offered them.
  • Be detailed about how a complaint is addressed. If a decision is made by the organization in response to the complaint, be detailed on how the decision took place and exactly who was involved in making the decision (by job title rather than name is okay). If it was not a democratic process, then say so. Not all decisions can be taken by such, but no matter how a decision is taken, an organization should be transparent if that decision, especially if it has resulted from a complaint by volunteers or other supporters.
  • Don't post once or two responses and then ask for the debate to stop. A better strategy is to let the debate play out. If you respond to a criticism, and someone says, "that didn't address my criticism", then re-review the original post and respond again, and/or ask the person what would better address their concerns. If it takes answering each question or sentence individually, do so. Also, ask the entire community how they feel about the debate -- are their own questions or concerns being addressed? As long as someone doesn't meet the definition of a troll (see below), let the debate rage on. In the best of worlds, the community itself will bring the debate to a halt -- and be your greatest "defenders."
  • If the criticism is of an action that is not negotiable/changeable, then be prepared to both stand your ground AND to sincerely acknowledge the criticism. If, after considering the criticisms of your choice of a conference site, your logo redesign, your new policy regarding volunteer candidate screening, the closing of a branch office, etc., your organization decides it's not going to change the decision, then say so, and say why . But also acknowledge any of the legitimate grievances the critics have: should you have made the decision-making more democratic? Should you have solicited feedback before a decision had been made? Should you have better communicated the reason why you undertook an action? Acknowledging such missteps and committing to altering future decision-making as a result of the criticism can take the sting out of the "loss" for critics who don't win "the battle," because you show that, indeed, the criticism did have impact.

  Reprinted with permission from Jayne Cravens


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David Huelsmann

Dave Huelsmann was Treasurer of Open Source Matters, Inc. from 2008 to July, 2010 and Joomla Forum Global Moderator from 2005 to November, 2010. Now retired, he was a senior healthcare executive who managed large and diverse clinical laboratory, radiology, electroencephalography, and centralized patient transport operations/departments in both not-for-profit and for-profit companies throughout the United States.

Dave was a Navy Corpsman who served in Vietnam while attached to Seabee battalionmcb71

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