This article was published in Finweek Magazine on 9-Aug-2012
“The most valuable commodity I know of is information.” These are the words of the depraved Gordon Gekko in the 1987 classic film Wall Street. In simple terms, information is power. And the less information we share with others – even if it is relevant and helps them do their jobs better – the more power we feel we have. Does withholding information from others make us more powerful? Or is the opposite true?
One of our clients, Melissa, recently shared an enlightening experience to help answer this question.
A review of Melissa’s management style revealed a particularly low score for the competency “My manager freely shares information to help employees succeed”. One of her employees had commented “You have no idea the damage and embarrassment you have caused me by not telling me the full story.”
Melissa wasn’t surprised by the low rating. She operated on a need-to-know basis. Her philosophy was that employees should be told just enough information to get the job done – any extra information is simply a waste of time and confuses the issue. It wasn’t a power thing, she reasoned, but rather about driving a culture of efficiency.
But she was disturbed by the comment. So we opened up the interactive chat function which enabled Melissa to conduct a private online text conversation with the employee concerned, where that employee remained anonymous. This is how the conversation went (as reported by Melissa, with permission):
Melissa: “What do you mean? What damage and embarrassment have I caused?”
Anonymous Employee: “In my dealings with others, I often come across as incompetent or accusatory as a direct result of only having half the information”
Melissa: “Well, if you feel you don’t have enough information, then ask questions to clarify”
Anonymous Employee: “That sounds great, but the problem is that without a view of the bigger picture, I don’t know what questions to ask. And I often end up making assumptions which seem reasonable to me, but end up making me look pretty stupid.”
Melissa didn’t understand this response. She couldn’t relate to what her employee was telling her. She left the office, pondering how to respond.
That evening, she sat down to dinner with her 4-year-old son, Greg. He had visited a friend that afternoon, and she asked him if he had enjoyed his play-date.
“Oh yes, Mommy. We had lots of fun.”
“What did you do at Tim’s house?”
“We did lots of things. The best thing was swimming in his pool.”
“What?!” Melissa erupted. Greg didn’t know how to swim, so this was particularly disturbing to Melissa. “Was anyone watching you swim?”
“Yes, Sophie [the domestic helper] was watching. But sometimes she went inside the house to clean.”
Melissa was outraged. She phoned Tim’s mom and started blasting her about how irresponsible she was to leave kids alone in the pool. Especially kids that can’t swim. Thank Heavens no-one drowned!
Tim’s mother listened patiently, and then said quietly “I think you should come over.”
So Melissa jumped in the car and sped over to Tim’s house, ready to continue her tirade. When Tim’s mom answered the door, she was met with another mouthful of angry words and admonishments. Again, she waited for a gap, and then said “Let’s go out back”.
Tim’s mom led Melissa into the garden, where she saw the evil swimming pool. In fact, it could hardly be called a ‘swimming pool’ at all. More like a toddler splash pool. It probably held the same amount of water as a bathtub.
Melissa could not contain her embarrassment. She apologized profusely and got out of there as quickly as she could. When she got home, she yelled at Greg, “I just made a fool of myself! Why didn’t you tell me that Tim’s swimming pool wasn’t a proper pool like we’ve got in our garden?”
He looked at her and smiled innocently. “You didn’t ask.”
And that’s when Melissa understood what her employee was telling her. She had made some big assumptions on the basis of the information that Greg had shared with her. And without the bigger picture, she was unable to see how stupid these assumptions made her look.
Are you guilty of this? Do you hoard information in the interests of efficiency? In fact, by sharing more information than you think is necessary, you very often improve efficiency. If people see the bigger picture and fully understand the context of the problem, then they are far more likely to come up with value-added solutions. Solutions which you may never have thought of yourself.
If information is power, then sharing information is empowering.
Or, as my kids say, “Sharing is caring.”
This is a guest post by Dr. Gavin Symanowitz, the founder of FeedbackRocket.com, an award-winning online innovation that enables anonymous management feedback.