THE COST OF UNNECESSARY ORGANIZATIONAL SECRECY

You wonder what’s going on at work? Things just don’t seem right. You called your friend top-side who works with the boss and they told you there have been a lot of behind-closed-door discussions among the managers of late but they are being quite tight-lipped.  Your friend also told you they had heard rumors about the need for some big pending changes but had no details. At your end, your colleagues have been exchanging their own theories about declining profits, customer unhappiness, reassignments, cut-backs in hours, even layoffs — one assumption more dire than the next — and tension is growing. These are difficult economic times nation-wide and no time to lose one’s job. When will they tell us something you wonder?

Sound familiar?  My guess is it is frighteningly common these days.  Well if you are a manager, you at least can do something about situations like this on behalf of your subordinates and it begins by focusing on the cost to your subordinates and your organization of keeping them in the dark.  Then you will need to engage in a little bit of managing, both up and down.

The cost of unnecessary organizational secrecy can by substantial and extensive.

First, there is the hit to morale.  Nervous subordinates wondering what’s up or waiting for the roof to collapse on them are rarely happy, focused, productive subordinates.  We humans like some sense of the arena we are operating in even when it means we will need to cope with some unpleasant realities, and we tend to worry a lot when uncertainty rules.

Second, there is generally considerable loss of productive time as subordinates engage each other in round after round of speculative conversation hoping somebody else is more in the know than they are.  In an atmosphere of uncertainty and factual ignorance, creativity, innovation, focus and productive teamwork are often the casualties.

Finally, there is the iron law of communications:  in the absence of information, people will make things up and those things will usually be disproportionately negative. In most organizations these made up notions become rumors and they quickly take on a life of their own.  As a manager, try dispelling a series of negative rumors and don’t be surprised if subordinates interpret your efforts as an attempt to cover up the real, even darker truth.

Management in many organizations — wittingly or unwittingly — develop a “behind closed doors” culture and operate often oblivious to the impact it has on those who must carry the daily production load.  If you manage in that sort of environment you may not be able to overhaul the entire system but you certainly can — as I have said elsewhere — change the room you are in.

Your managing up challenge is to make your superiors aware of the consequences and costs of excessive, unnecessary secrecy with as many concrete examples as you can muster.  Your associated goal is to gain as much insight as you can about the current state of affairs, issues, problems, and/or challenges with the clear understanding that you wish to be more open and informative with those you manage.  While there may always be matters that must be withheld for legitimate reasons, in my experience they are generally few in number.

True, in many organizations this managing up challenge can be difficult.  But as part of the management team, and on behalf of your subordinates, it is you job to try.

Your managing down obligation is to be as fully communicative, open and honest with your subordinates as you can.  It is always helpful for managers to remind themselves that their subordinates are actually adults and, therefore, generally cope best when they understand fully what the are up against.  Honesty and facts allow subordinates to access their adaptive mechanisms and plan ahead accordingly.  The more they know, the more they are likely to feel a respected and trusted part of their organization.  Moreover, the more they know, the more likely their creativity, initiative, and talents can be put to use in coping with whatever situation you may face.

If ultimately you are questioning just how much to share, my rule of thumb is to error on the side of the fullest possible disclosure.  The best managers are those who develop a reputation among their subordinates as someone who holds little back.  Consequently they are trusted to tell it like it is and thereby avoid the worst costs of unnecessary secrecy.

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