When decision-making isn’t transparent

I once had the pleasure of spending an hour by myself with one of the world’s great managers — Jack Welch.

I have never forgotten the advice he gave me, and I’ve quoted him hundreds of times since I met him in 2003, not long after he retired from General Electric where he was largely regarded as one the top CEOs over the final 25 years of the 20th century.

I asked him what it takes to become a great manager. His answer: “Tell people the truth.”

He went on to explain that in the absence of information people create their own expectations for themselves — and sometimes those expectations are not in line with their performance as an employee.

– Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric

Welch may have approached performance with a “glass is half-empty” point of view, but he genuinely worried for his people. He told me that he feared the people under his leadership would buy a second home or a new car believing a career assignment or promotion was coming when one wasn’t.

He didn’t want people getting in over their heads financially, I remember him telling me.

I’m an optimist by nature; it is hard for me to take a “glass is half-empty” perspective. But a workplace where information about decision-making is scarce — or absent — more than likely encourages cynical human behaviors. As I said in my introduction blog, people are intrinsically curious; when a decision at work from above affects them in some way, it is a normal human instinct to seek out more information about the decision.

What may start out as a simple question can quickly turn into an unsubstantiated rumors as the game of telephone can escalate an innocent inquiry into an internal political battle.

It’s employee engagement gone bad.

Yeh, it’s a half-empty view, but I’ve met with thousands of leaders and managers working in global Fortune 1000 organizations over the past 20 years; I’ve asked these them to describe what behaviors fester when information about decision-making is scare.

Four distinct behaviors emerged from these conversations — and each is a warning sign of an unhappy and unengaged workforce.

Each behavior shares the common fact that scarcity of information about decision-making can (sometimes) encourage the worst in (some) people.

Here are the four warning signs, in no order of importance:

  1. Hidden Agendas: Where people don’t tell colleagues what or why they are doing the things they do in order to take advantage of a lack of information to gain some personal or organizational advantage.
  2. Passive-Aggressive Behavior: Where people do the opposite of what they say they are going to do, often to undermine colleagues. An absence of information emboldens this behavior because people can agree in public but disagree in private — what one executive called, “Minnesota nice.” As someone who appreciates the use of language, I loved some of the wildly cynical ways people use language to give themselves a way to explain their behaviors. One Fortune 100 customer shared this phrase with me as the ultimate expression of passive-aggressive language: “Directionally, I agree with you.”
  3. Information is Power: Where people with “inside” information about a decision selectively share the information with colleagues when it creates some personal advantage. “Inside” by definition means the information about the decision is not widely dispersed.
  4. Noise in the System: Where people spend time looking for information associated with decision-making; and, in the process, create unsubstantiated rumors or even conspiracy theories to express personal frustration when a decision affects them in some way.

What all these cynical behaviors have in common is they waste time and create friction between and among people on a team — all the result of speculation about decision-making.

It is for this reason we trademarked the phrase, “Less Speculation, More Execution.™”

We created the Transparency Imperative to hold organizations, leaders and managers accountable for the elimination of speculation about decision-making — by adopting the Six Drivers of Transparency.

I hope four warning signs is enough, but if readers have nominations for number five, please drop a comment for others to read.

(Let’s hope four is enough.)

Posted by:Transparency Imperative Blog

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