Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Mar 1, 2009

You're on a Need to Know Basis

Advice to Management from the hamsters who run the gossip mill. ~~ Tess McGill, guest lecturer

You do not need us to remind you that Knowledge is Power. You might need to be reminded why. The psychology of oppression tells us that the weaker will always understand the stronger more than they understand us. So let me spell this out for you.

The problem with your Need to Know philosophy is that you don't understand what we need to know.

We need to know there is a plan
We don't see your plans often. When we do they are after the fact, in the form of annual reports, and company meetings. We subscribe to online clip services for a reason, and it isn't company loyalty.

When we scratch around looking for information, it is because we are trying to see the future ahead. Please remember that we have our lives to lead, and our margins for error in decision making are actually narrower than yours. Buying the house, advising the spouse to go back to school, even signing up at the gym can follow decision trees that actually hinge on "If the company does this...." "if my Boss decided to...." Two real life examples I can vouch for are the woman considering surgery, and the engaged couple picking a wedding date, while layoff lists were being drawn up. Both of them lost their jobs, by the way (and still had the surgery and the wedding).

You managers scoff as you read this and say, "Oh, we're just supposed to show us our hand? Or stall you for an answer? You want us to lie?" No, we want you to run a company where layoffs are not an annual cost-cutting measure or management solution, but instead are caused by a catastrophic and unforeseen event, often external to normal operations. We do know the difference.

We need to know who is in charge
We have ideas. We have observations. We have objections; you know that too. When you keep us in the dark you get the short-term win of not being bothered by us, but you miss the long-term growth of the engaged worker.

We ask who made this decision or signed off on that idea because we are trying to understand where the power base is, and often just trying to spot a pattern in business culture. Because we have no playbook, we have trouble anticipating the next move, seeing the big picture, and understanding how what we are marching toward today influences where we might be marching to tomorrow.

Don't hide behind phrases like "senior management" when you mean A Senior Manager. Say "senior management" when you mean the consensus of senior managers through discussion and negotiation, toward a common business goal. When we think that's what you meant, and find out later it was just a bully executive, we are less inspired next time.

We need to know the last X months weren't all B.S.
There is a moment after the Surprise Party has been revealed when the guests stand around the celebrant and replay every conversation they have had for the past few weeks, up until the moment before the door opened. Everyone shouts merrily over each other "that's why.... that's why...." because when we have been deceived (and for all its good intentions, a surprise party is an orchestrated conspiracy of the people you love most), we need to defrag our brains of all the misinformation we have been fed "for our own good."

When big changes come to the Company, the workforce spends about a day and a half replaying its surprise party stories to find the truth, the half-truths and the flat out lies they were subjected to, often at the hands of their own managers and executives. We try to uncover what they themselves knew and when they knew it -- who was on the "inside" and who on the "outside."

Dear leaders, please do not say things like "just wait a couple of weeks. There are going to be some changes" when we ask you for advice with a difficult problem. Why not advise us based on what you know, even if you can't tell us what it is? If Future Condition is so drastically different from Current Condition that you would actually advise a different course of action... just advise it. Or we could stop asking for your advice at all and stay with the rumor mill where people speak plainly.

We need to know WHY
You never understand that part of it, do you? Even after your big reveal, you have no explanation, and it makes us suspect that is because Bob in the corner office wanted it, no one could stop him, and the company had no other plan in place to compete with his idea.

We need to know if this is about money
Honestly, we can take it. If it is true that we will all have 5-7 careers in our lifetime, then we will see you restructure, change directions, relocate, sunset, about 100 times.

Admit it is about money and we won't have to take it personally.
Admit it is about money and we won't feel so defeated going home with our box of stuff.
We won't wonder why we didn't test the thing before we bought the company.
Why you split the department only to bring it back together again.

We already think/know you didn't plan it. You'll actually look less inept, even if it does make you look greedy and selfish. We already think that anyway.

We need to know what this means for us
We are very good at a few things the executive tier has lost use for:
- sharing ideas
- working together
- representative government
- hypothesis and the scientific method
- honesty

Your lost productivity comes from the workforce hoping to figure this out on its own, seminar style.

Here's how we want it
Tell us your plan for the year; establish your priorities. If you need to be nimble, make nimble goals. "Nimble" does not mean "vague," by the way. They are not from the same language. In fact, they are opposites.

Tell us how each division will achieve these goals. Tell us who will sponsor each of those goals.
Establish cross-functional workteams from the top down, and with an eye toward our workload, skills, and development goals. Decide what things will cost and hold people accountable for the bottom line.

Publish your business crisis philosophies as openly as you do your company goals:
Is this a company that cuts spending or raises prices?
What are the above-the-line luxury items that go before people?
How does the company prepare for economic changes?

This helps us know what to expect -- especially if you stick with it. The company can then follow Laws of Its Own Nature and we can stop whispering through IM and wandering by meeting rooms to see who is in them.

Knowledge is Power, because any commodity in short supply has real value. Seed some in the grassy roots instead of deciding for us what we need.

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