People have lots of reasons for hoarding information, mostly bad ones. But sometimes it’s good to keep quiet. After all, you want information to get where it’s needed, in a way that serves everyone involved.
Our daily job as managers is simple. We observe, taking in information. We think about it, make decisions, and then act.1 In the past, observation created a bottleneck. Information was hard to find, hard to duplicate, and it traveled slowly—often by ship, train, or horseback.
Information was also scarce, and that made it valuable. Power was gained by hoarding information and being shrouded in mystery. That was then, this is now. Hoarding information used to be a show of power, now it’s just annoying. The bottleneck has moved, and with it, the dynamics of who wins and who loses.
Most of us are flooded with too much information. What we need is time and space to think and act. Now, power comes to those who can harness information by getting it to the right people at the right time, so they can move the organization forward.
Which brings us to confidentiality. Imagine a Powerful Executive Team (PET) that keeps things confidential unless there’s a need to know. The PET graces employees with the nuggets of wisdom needed to do their job. This scheme demands that the PET know enough about their employees to judge who needs what information and when. If the PET is hiring right—that is, hiring people smarter than they are—then they can’t predict who will need what. Innovation and creativity often come from someone using information in novel ways. The information-hoarding PET may strut around feeling powerful, but with China, Singapore, and Silicon Valley nipping at its heels, its days are numbered.
A better, twenty-first century strategy is making information part of your business infrastructure. Let go of information-as-power, and instead embrace information-as-lifeblood. You must channel it well, but if you make the right information pervasive, you’re building for strength.
Spread knowledge about strategy to set direction
Our brains are learning machines. If you imagine a goal, gather feedback, and allow flexible action, then performance improves almost without effort.2 Business is made of people—make goals and feedback the most important information to share.
Your goals are your vision, mission, and the subgoals they create. Everyone in your organization should know your vision and mission—your C-level team, VPs, managers, and line workers. The vision and mission become the ultimate “why” of everyone’s job. By knowing the larger vision, people know what they’re working toward. They can feel proud to be part of something large, even if their job is small.
And of course your vision and mission are goals to achieve. “We improve the quality of healthcare by providing doctors, nurses, and hospitals scientifically proven medical devices” is one company’s vision. You can bet every researcher, salesperson, manager, and customer service person can use the vision to decide daily if they are advancing the company. If not, they can make course corrections on the fly.
Strategy helps people link their job to the vision. One financial services company’s strategy is to be a “trusted friend” to its customers. If everyone at the company lives and breathes this, they’ll work to establish relationships rather than cutting customer calls short to meet call-length quotas.
“But wait,” you say, “you can’t have call reps on the phone for hours gabbing with customers!” Quite right. That’s where feedback comes in. People need to know their performance metrics (with as little delay as possible!) and how they link to the goals, so they can make their own corrections.
When personal finance software maker Intuit was small, Monday morning was time for the Metrics Meeting. Every department presented their critical measurements to the assembled crowd. Everyone was welcome, and when everyone knew sales, support call volumes, etc., the staff could brainstorm when something drifted off track.
Your most global measurements are your financial statements. If all employees know your business model and can read the financial statements, they can make informed judgment calls. Your call center customer reps quickly decide: “It’s not worth spending all day with a customer whose lifetime value is $500. My job is to resolve or let the customer go.” Or, if you are a fractional jet ownership company where customer lifetime value is in the millions, your reps can decide to hand-hold a single customer for the better part of their natural life.
(It may take tweaking to discover the best level of information sharing, but the rewards are great. For teaching people to link financials to their job, Profitability Business Simulations (www.profitability.com) has one of the best programs I’ve ever found.)
Spread knowledge about the organization to build efficient operations
It always amazes me how few people in business—other than the managers who institute a reorganization—understand their organization’s structure and processes. Yet that understanding is critical to making things happen.
The larger your business, the smaller the jobs. In a fifty-person company, one person might handle accounts receivable and be an account manager. Since they deal with customers as an account manager, they can mention receivables issues as part of that relationship. In a 5,000-person company, however, receivables may take four full-time people, each doing just part of the job.
In a really specific job, people lose the big picture. They don’t know where work comes from or where it goes next. And they rarely know why it matters.
So give them that knowledge! Make sure everyone knows where they are in the business, and why what they do matters. Then when they meet others in the process they can devise ways of making things run more smoothly. And besides, it helps people feel more meaning in their jobs. Gallup surveys say roughly 70 percent of workers are disengaged from their jobs. Do you doubt it? If your job were double-checking line 4 of form X3/J eight hours a day, you wouldn’t be champing at the bit, either. Help people know their contribution is meaningful by spreading the word about how everything works. Tell them. Show them. Remind them.
Not only must people know what they do, they must know what they don’t do. Don’t waste time and money duplicating effort. Let everyone know where responsibilities begin and end. If marketing chooses final product features, make sure product development knows so the groups don’t step on each others’ toes. While boundaries are easily set early on, make sure they’re emphasized at all times to keep a lid on turf battles.
Spread your reasoning to improve morale and buy-in
Everyone agrees salaries should be kept confidential. Why? Obviously, because people will compare. If they feel underpaid, they’ll complain, hurt morale, and maybe leave. Ditto for promotions.
If people think you promote and pay unfairly, everyone will assume you have the worst possible motives. The gossip mill will kick into overdrive, and morale will kick into underdrive. Help people understand why decisions are made and you can head off the worst of the problems.
Transparency can be risky! If salary information creates conflict, maybe the managers aren’t paying fairly. Maybe they really need an engineer when engineers are in great demand, so the company will pay the new engineer more than current engineers. Market reality? Yes. Fair? Of course not. In companies where salaries are public, these issues surface and get discussed. But these discussions should be based on sharing the real reasons and criteria behind salaries. People may not agree with the logic, but the undercurrent of betrayal and intrigue can vanish. It’s a tricky discussion. So much so that W. Edwards Deming, father of the quality movement, believes there should be no pay for performance, only flat salaries.
Personally, I like public salary data. It makes life harder for me, and that’s a good thing. I’m forced to justify salaries and make my expectations and pay policies crystal clear to everyone I hire. You may decide differently. Just make sure people understand the “why” behind your policy and they’ll be more likely to agree.
Spread reasoning about promotions to improve morale
Keeping promotions confidential may also be a disaster waiting to happen. When an individual gets promoted, everyone who wanted the job gets upset. They take that person’s promotion as a personal insult.
In an ideal world, everyone knows what’s expected of them. They knew where they still need to develop, and what the criteria are for the next promotion. But what happens when many people are qualified for one job? Face reality: We only choose one person over another because someone must be promoted. Bring up the possibility before it happens and you might head off a rebellion. If you wait until the promotion is announced, your hands are tied and everyone else has an unpleasant shock.
We don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes we offer a promotion to keep an essential employee. Or a merger eliminates a redundant product line, and we must promote that project’s members to entice them to stay. Depending on your culture, these situations may be discussable, or not. The key is to share the reasoning and gain buy-in on the process behind promotions before promotions happen.
Share knowledge about critical events to preserve trust
Some business events change everyone’s lives. Layoffs, mergers, acquisitions, and C-level changes make an entire organization’s life uncertain. Uncertainty breeds fear. Fear breeds suspicion—and people will be suspicious of you, of “them,” and of everyone they suspect of being a mastermind behind the disruptive event.
Share knowledge about such events long before the rumor mill takes over. The rumor mill makes circumstances more dire than they really are. The rumor mill reinforces people’s wildest nightmares, and ensures any momentary comfort is properly interrupted by fear, uncertainty, and doubt. “Sure, management says your group will survive, but I hear AcquisitionCo already has a competing group. But you’ll survive the cut. Probably…”
Open discussion can head off the worst fears. Sometimes, details must be kept confidential. Sometimes, you actually don’t have the answers. Say so. “We are in merger talks with XYZ Co. We don’t yet know which groups will stay and which will go.” As long as you’re telling the truth, people will trust you. They’ll still be stressed out over the uncertainty, but you can offer them the certainty of knowing where you are. And that will preserve trust.
Keep a firm knowledge boundary at the company walls
Though information is your company’s lifeblood, you need to keep it inside your walls. Information about critical customers, mergers, and reorgs can jeopardize success if leaked to competitors or the media. Steep your culture in information sharing, and have people place a premium on confidentiality. Tell everyone what must be kept secret, and make sure they know what that means. Yes, it’s breaking confidentiality to tell your best friend, even if he crosses his heart and swears not to tell.
Information keeps people going. It helps people do their jobs, it feeds morale, and it lets everyone bring their full creativity towards common goals, rather than acting randomly. Share strategy, the “hows” and “whys” of how the organization works, and address uncertainty around major events. The goal is always to get everyone thinking together around creating the best results. Confidentiality has a place, but the question “what should be kept confidential?” has an important complement: “what must we share to become a breakthrough organization?”