The context: we’ve got democratised access to key information
NYT bestseller Dan Pink wrote in To Sell is Human that consumerism has moved from the age of information asymmetry to the age of information parity.
In information asymmetry, one party to a transaction has more information than the other, like a car salesman. How does the punter know how much the car is really worth? They’ll likely pay over the odds.
Enter the internet, social media and smartphones. At the click of a button the punter knows how much that make and model of car is worth. It’s much more likely they’ll pay a fair price.
This is information parity: it occurs when both parties have access to the same information. It’s changed the consumer world completely.
Organisations have historically been defined by information asymmetry, reflected in the hierarchy, with knowledge distributed based on pay grade. This structure has been resistant to the same change we’ve seen in the consumer world, which is problematic for employee engagement for several reasons.
Five ways withholding information is problematic for engagement
It damages trust because leaders are seen to be ‘holding back’
One of the most common reasons for withholding information is being scared of causing a productivity drop or a talent flight. For example, if the organisation is going through a tough time financially, leadership will often try to shield this from employees, thinking that if staff smell a sinking ship they will stop working hard or jump to another company.
And yet, human beings are intuitive and can sense when something is wrong, but in this case, they start to feel that management doesn’t trust them to know what that thing is, and that destroys trust. And we all know how long destroyed trust can take to rebuild. Motivation can drop, and therefore productivity, and employees may leave.
If the company had shared information in the first place, some people may have left, but more than likely people would have pulled out all the stops to ensure the organisation made it through the tough times, and trust and respect would have been built on both sides through the display of vulnerability.
It negatively affects perceptions of leadership effectiveness
Failing to disclose key information can affect staff perception of leadership effectiveness. This happens when employees can’t understand the reason behind a decision and – as all human beings do – they naturally assume the wrong decision has been made, rather than that their interpretation of the decision might be based on an incomplete set of facts.
This is a human tendency that is very hard to fight. The upshot is that without sharing the full set of facts, senior leaders could be making logical and sensible decisions and be damaging engagement as the grapevine fills in the gaps in employee perception of what’s going on.
It stymies bottom-up processes like creativity and collaboration
Technology has levelled the competitive playing field. For organisations to survive in the modern world, tapping into the collective intelligence and talent of employees is crucial.
This means that processes like creativity and collaboration are more important than ever to organisational success.
But all these processes require clear boundaries and structures that come from really understanding the problem that needs solving. With incomplete information, it’s very hard to reach optimal decisions.
And if employees do reach sub-optimal decisions, which leaders know can’t work for reasons that haven’t been disclosed, it can be very disengaging for employees to see all that effort wasted and not really understand why.
It makes people feel cog-like rather than critical
The literature is very clear that a key driver of engagement is feeling like the work you do matters to the organisation [PDF]. This is partly down to the reality (the actual value your work creates in the organisation) and the perception (to what extent the organisation makes you feel like you’re an important part of it).
When organisations fail to share information, it sends a message that employees are not important and reinforces the traditional us-and-them divide between leaders and employees. Feeling like you’re always the last to know about decisions, or feeling like you’re being cut out the loop, does not make employees feel valued.
This can be brought back to the idea of respect: when we are kept up-to-date, when leaders put effort into making sure we feel informed, we feel valued, motivated and ready to step up.
It makes it harder for people to be good at their jobs
Finally, not having access to information reduces front-line effectiveness. Information parity has given your customers access to information on the pros and cons of your products and services versus your competitors and unless your employees are similarly clued-up, they won’t be able to engage successfully.
Being good at your job is an important part of being engaged at work, so sharing key information with front-line workers, which helps them succeed in meeting customer need, can impact levels of engagement.