Too little, too much, just right

Last Tuesday, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced the 2011 Juno nominees. Arcade Fire and Justin Bieber both received nods for album of the year. This study in contrasts (from sublime to ridiculous, frankly) got me thinking about extremes in change communication. It doesn’t take much, obviously.

On one end we have organizations that share very little about what’s going on, who’s impacted and why. Common excuses include: it’s sensitive competitive information; our employees may share the news externally; or my favourite – it minimally impacts their day to day work (hogwash!). On the other end are those organizations that practice “radical transparency,” and share pretty much everything. The truth is, most orgs fall somewhere in the middle. But I am noticing a concerning trend.

With our markets still in some upheaval, many organizations have become far more cloistered and conservative with their information. This natural desire to protect their own interest is understandable but misguided when it comes to employees. When times are tough, we need our employees pulling in the same direction as us. To do that, they’ve got to know our challenges, our realities, and our strategy (if we have one) to get to safer shores. As one wise leader once whispered in my ear, “none of us is better than all of us.”

Instead, we’re seeing more and more companies withholding information or parsing it out in fits and spurts in an effort to keep the full truth shielded. When we do this, we don’t create the narrative; we leave it to our employees, and left to their own devices, they stitch together what one client aptly terms a ‘crazy quilt.’ Often they get the basics right, but the assumptions regarding what’s behind the decisions are far from true. And the competition, they do the same damn thing.

Add to this the wikileaks reality we live in, and the ability to keep things within the confines of the boardroom goes out the window. There will always be a crack or two, and information, like water, finds the easiest path and drains in that direction.

Anyone who worries that employees may flip an email or confidential announcement to the outside world should pause and wonder why. Employees who trust their leaders, believe in their business and are personally invested in the organization rarely do this. Employees who are downtrodden, mistrusted, disengaged or checked out do. Where are your employees on this continuum? Maybe you’ve got some work to do.

So, how much is too much or too little? You’ll have to decide what’s best for your organization. But my advice is to err on the side of open. The more you can share, including the rationale behind decisions and the plan to get to Valhalla or just the next quarter, the stronger and more united you’ll be.

Oh, and to demonstrate my own commitment to sharing the whole truth, my vote is for Arcade Fire on March 27th (if you hadn’t figured that out already…).