By Bruce Clarke
Aug. 23, 2012
The word “vacuum” is from the Latin for “empty.” Vacuums create suction and clean carpets. Given this definition, why do leaders sometimes think a vacuum of information (meaning little or none of it is shared) is a good way to lead people, encourage good work and produce results?
When management creates an information vacuum, something will fill it. Just like the dirt attracted to that Hoover, misinformation and speculation will swirl around on its way into the vortex of your employees’ minds. And just like that dirt, it is likely unattractive and unpleasant to house in your office.
In almost every case, the real information we purposefully or neglectfully withheld is much more useful and positive than the destructive misinformation attracted by that vacuum.
One of the key expectations employees have of their leaders is that they will be a source of truthful and useful information. The most important category of information for employees is “How does this affect me?” Consider these examples:
A key employee just resigned. A remaining worker - let’s call her Sally - wonders if her workload may double for a period of time as a result, or if she will be considered as a replacement in that position. What is Sally thinking after three weeks of “no word” from management on its plans? What is management thinking? What is the chance they are thinking the same thing as Sally?
A major customer just left the company. Is that bad or good? For who? The reaction can depend on where you sit and what you do for the company. The management team may see it very differently than the people who deliver the goods or services.
If your company cut costs last year and delayed pay raises but things “seem” better this year, employees may wonder “Are we going back to our old pattern, or are we in a waiting mode? For how long?” Ask five employees and you will get five opinions.
Similarly, if employees see consultants and strangers (or trainers, or auditors, or new faces) all around, they might wonder “Are we being bought, sold, acquired, assessed for a big loan, assessed for retention or layoff? What?” An information vacuum around such situations creates rumors and discontent among employees as a result.
When scenarios that lead to information vacuums occur, address them immediately. You can do this by encouraging and rewarding managers, especially HR, for bringing the “view from the floor” to your team. While some developments at work may seem silly to you, for others they may be a cause for concern.
In addition, prevent unintended vacuums by using employee surveys conducted by a third party to encourage candor and honest comments. Some amazing revelations will be uncovered and resolved.
Consider the information needs of the average employee when any major decision, important event or scary issue arises. If management is concerned enough to expend time and sweat, chances are employees care too, even if for different reasons. It is to your advantage to establish a culture of good and timely information with channels to publicize important news and results to your workforce. Make these issues acceptable topics of conversation and inquiry. Create an “It’s okay to ask” culture. Resist the temptation to believe your employees cannot handle the truth, they do not want to know the truth or the truth will be used as a sword against you one day. Sure, there are common sense exceptions to this and timing may be everything. Generally speaking, more is better when the “How does it affect me?” factor is high.
Are there situations when saying nothing is better than saying something? Yes, when you are contractually bound to silence for a short period and when the news is so bad or complex you must have time to form a response. And there are many times when some of the information should be withheld or tailored to its audience (TMI, right?).
Bottom line: I encourage you to think of information as an important tool in your bag for creating a healthy culture, engaged staff and productive workplace.
Bruce Clarke, J.D. is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C., that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. Contact him at www.capital.org.