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Did you hide the library books?


  • Do you tell employees their position in the pay range?

  • Do they understand how the annual pay award is calculated and allocated?

  • Do they know if they are on the high potential list?

  • Do they even know the criteria to be considered high potential?

  • Do they know what is really discussed about them in the performance calibration meetings?

  • Do they understand how promotions are decided?

I recently visited an actual library, with my two boys, and it was a great experience for us all. It also brought back memories of years spent searching through and studying in my old University library.

Like many of you reading this I grew up, studied, and learnt in an era pre-internet, where knowledge really was power as it was such hard work to come by and therefore had perceptibly greater intrinsic worth. I recall the day I was highlighted to the fact that the competitive and driven types would rush off as soon as the university reading lists were available, find the only text copies in the library and then hide them deep in the anthropology section or some obscure part of the building, on a different floor in a separate dusty wing where no-one would think to look, even the librarians. This therefore avoided the need to loan them out and it hamstrung the rest of us who needed the texts to complete our assignments or dissertations. These people are now today's leaders; can you spot them in your life or were you one of them? What culture does this promote and what behaviours? Compare and contrast this with our now ubiquitously studied millennials growing up with a mature, robust and information rich World Wide Web and smart phone enabled; it is inconceivable that information could be hidden or kept as leverage when now all we need is to do is Google it or simply ask Siri!

Companies can make it very hard for employees to understand what happens and why, and for line managers to give consistent messages, or even to find the right information. All too often we see time-starved and work pressured line managers give interpretation, opinion, or views long held from previous experiences which cause confusion, inconsistency, frustration and in worst cases can expose the company to litigation.

We are programmed to make meaning of information. We are programmed to complete our understanding even if there are gaps in the information provided. We are programmed to be efficient and therefore we filter what we hear through our own hopes, values, and experiences, so what is said is almost guaranteed not to be what is heard and understood. Put simply communication is very hard, even for those trained to do it well even when written down in policy and process documents. Regardless of whether these are short and principled or long and detailed. When was the last time you sent your line managers and employees on communication skills or awareness of personal impact or even unconscious bias programmes? When was the last time your documentation was reviewed for clarity? Unless someone has undertaken a whole heap of self awareness work on themselves, understands their impact on others, and has studied and applied all the nuances of communication theory from the classical Ars Oratoria to modern advanced language pattern theory, chances are something sometime might be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misspoken, and it may still do even if you have that somewhat unique skillset. The implications and repercussions of which can be untold like a pebble thrown into pond.

Why then do we keep so much information hidden in the workplace? Collaboration, sharing, creatively standing on the shoulders of giants moves us forwards. Silos, power grabs and reductionism does not.

Many in HR and communications argue, and have done in many team, leadership and board meetings the world over that information should be available to all those that want it, that we should openly and bravely address the urban myths that grow from observed behaviours (behaviours which are often misunderstood), do it quickly, and that people should be trusted to deal with this information. In a healthy organisation there should be no reason why the answer to any of the opening questions shouldn't be yes. There are consequences of course, but if you are going to have processes that impact significantly on your employees, who you empower and pay sizeable sums to to make other major decisions impacting significant budget accounts, should they also not be trusted to know the answers to these questions?

Secrets and the hiding of information has never really been clever, it can be divisive and contain too much power and energy for those that deal in them. Great communication also involves defusing this energy as safely and quickly as possible. I listened intently one day as a well respected leadership consultant once advised us when we were discussing what to share and what to keep only within HR and the management team, that materials for ‘management only’ should come with a health warning of “presumed exposure”, meaning that even if they have a certain intended population, we should work on the basis that from Day 1 everyone else will know about them too or at least see them at some point, so why bother complicating things now and into the future. Trust, respect, collaboration and openness are terms very often seen in company values or referenced in competencies. Next time you see these issues arising question whether the policies and behaviours in place are aligned to these or are in contradiction, and if so what can be done to change things.

After all this, if you still cannot find the information you need perhaps you could try the anthropology section of your local library, or just ask Siri!