In the Absence of Facts, People Assume the Worst

When we don’t tell people what they need to know, we are letting rumors run our companies. When we don’t manage the information, the lack of information will assuredly work against us. When there is an information void, it will be filled. It is our job to insure that it is filled with accurate, complete, and constructive information, not hearsay, rumor, and fiction.
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“Business has been really tough recently. I think I may have to lay off one or two of my employees. My employees sense that something is wrong, but if I even hint that I may be doing a layoff, I’ll have 80 angry and scared employees!”

“I’m at least a week behind on a project for a key customer, maybe even two weeks. They’ll be furious! This is really an important project for them, as evidenced by the fact that they call to check on its status every few days. I think I’ll just put my nose to the grindstone and call them when I can tell them the project is done.”

Have you ever had similar thoughts? Sometimes, withholding vital facts can be a good strategy. Usually, it only makes things worse.

Consider the first situation above. The person having these thoughts is likely partially right: the employees likely do know something is wrong. It is possible the employees knew it even before management. It is a good bet that the topic of conversation around the lunch table today will be which 20 or 30 people will be the ones laid off.

Or the second situation, where again the person having these thoughts is partially right: this is an important project for that customer. But do we really expect things to be better when, after several weeks of silence, we call up a week or more after the project was due to tell them it is now finally done?

These illustrations may seem extreme or absurd, but that is mostly due to the fact that they are someone else’s circumstances, not our own. Similar circumstances usually exist for all of us. For some people, they are so commonplace they seem to be an operational strategy for them.

What the supervisor thinks:  “She’s a great employee, but if I tell her so, she’ll just want a raise.”

What the employee thinks: “I’ve never received any positive feedback. I try to do my best, but clearly it isn’t enough. I better start looking for another job.”

What the owner thinks: “The financials for last month are done, and they were terrible! Sales were low and expenses were high. I’ll just keep this to myself rather than worrying everyone. Next month will be better, and then I will tell them.”

What the staff says to each other:  “Sales stunk last month, and Mary in accounting says we had tons of expenses too. I wonder if we’re going out of business.”

What the sales manager says: “Our three largest customers are visiting next month but there’s no point in telling the staff because they really aren’t interested.”

What the warehouse staff says: “I wish the sales manager would have told us these important customers were coming. We could have cleaned the place more and really impressed them.”

What the supplier thinks:  “We’ve had some quality problems on the production line. They’re just cosmetic issues, so we’ll just fix the problem before our customers even notice.”

What the customer thinks:  “Their quality is going downhill. I’m looking for a new supplier right away.”

There are legitimate reasons to keep certain things confidential, but many times there is more damage done when important facts are withheld from those that have a legitimate need to know.

Some things to consider:

  • Who are all of the groups that need information from you (I call these “publics”): Employees, owners, boards, suppliers, customers, banks, the media?
  • Do you know what information they need? Are there regular communications that can address this (for instance, regularly scheduled reports or meetings)? Are there non-routine communications that are needed to meet their need for information from you (telling the sales force when a product is out of stock; telling the bank when financial performance is slumping)?
  • As you generate information, or become aware of information, ask yourself who else needs that information.
  • What are the seemingly sensitive topics that you do not pass on? Is there more damage done by keeping them secret, or more damage done by carefully sharing the information? Is there a way the communication can be structured to mitigate the negatives?
  • What are your motivations for keeping information confidential? Are they legitimate motivations, or are you being overly cautious, suspicious, or is it that you just like to hold all the cards?

When we don’t tell people what they need to know, we are letting rumors run our companies. When we don’t manage the information, the lack of information will assuredly work against us. When there is an information void, it will be filled. It is our job to insure that it is filled with accurate, complete, and constructive information, not hearsay, rumor, and fiction.

© Ascent Advising 2006 (reprinted exclusively by SNEWS® with permission)

Dave Bartholomew is a principle with Ascent Advising, providing wide-ranging business advisory services to companies around the globe. His 30 years in leadership roles in the outdoor industry equip him well for coming alongside business owners and executive teams in moving their companies ever upward. His popular email newsletter, “Adages from Ascent”, brings to light vital and innovative concepts for running a business. For a free subscription, and to view past issues of the newsletter, visit AscentAdvising.com and follow the link for “Adages from Ascent”. Dave can be reached at Dave@AscentAdvising.com or 206-669-7055.

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