The ugly truth behind having secrets

Information is power. What information should you share with your team? What are the things that are better kept secret? And how does leadership fit into the picture? What secrets should you have as a leader and what things should you never hide? Being strong believer in transparency and honesty I don’t think there are many things that should be kept hidden. I can imagine there can be things that if shared would have legal implications but that’s it. Anything that doesn’t have legal impact should be in the open. Let me make my case.

Reasons to hide information?

I have often heard from managers that some information shouldn’t be shared as they would have negative impact on motivation of the team. The team would question some of the decisions, and people wouldn’t understand why something was necessary. Sometimes there is this fear that when you share information it can be used against you. Let me debunk some of these myths.

Sharing negative information will demotivate the team – why should it? Explaining the situation as it is will be seen as a show of respect and trust. After all, we are dealing with mature adults who know that life is complicated. And if you can follow up with a vision of the future you may even create a sense of urgency and make people act to change things for the best

Things can change – so sharing proposals that are not approved will create friction. People hate uncertainty. And people from most cultures also hate not being included in decisions that impact their lives. Keeping your team in the loop even during a decision making process will allow them to contribute and will create a feeling that their opinion matters. When you share the final decision it will be much easier to accept by the team.

People would question my decision if I share too much information – why should they? I assume you based your decision on a certain set of data points, information, values and beliefs. It is exactly the other way around. People will be more likely to accept the decision if they understand how and why it was made.

If I share this proposal someone may steal it finish and take credit – great! That would free your hands to do other stuff. Getting someone to take your idea and execute it is the best thing that can happen to you as I mentioned in Leave your ego at the door article.

If I share information with others I won’t have advantage over them – why should you have advantage over anyone? You work with the team towards a common goal. The moment you start playing office politics and trying to get advantage over others you no longer work towards that goal and will destroy your reputation as a leader in the nick of time.

I’m the boss, the team doesn’t need to know the details – you are right, they don’t need to know. But again, if you want them to follow you and work towards the common goal the more information you provide the bigger likelihood that they will have the sense of ownership and work to the best of their abilities to achieve the goal.

I’m shielding the team from too much information so they don’t get distracted – why did you hire bunch of legally insane people? And if you hired smart and adult individuals why do you believe you need to filter information for them? It is their responsibility to filter things they need and don’t need. By giving them the opportunity to decide what is important you treat them with respect and it is more likely they will follow you. I love this quote by Ricardo Semler “Workers are adults, but once they walk through the plant gate companies transform them into children.” Or something similar said by Jason Fried in his book Rework – “When you treat people like children, you get children’s work. Yet that’s exactly how a lot of companies and managers treat their employees.”

Why to share information?

And to share one more quote. Some time ago I heard this (not sure about its origin) “In absence of a good story someone else can make up a story of his own.” People love to speculate and imagine things, the less information they have the more wild things they will come up with and the more damaging these speculations will be. Being open and transparent pretty much prevents unwanted speculations and gossip and creates a culture of mutual trust and sense of ownership of the common goal and future of the company. Let us look at a manager who shares information and creates environment of transparency, inclusion and trust.

Transparency and trust – by being transparent you show a great deal of trust that your team will be able to handle the information like reasonable adults. When you trust people they will trust you back.

Inclusion and sense of ownership – by including people in decisions and sharing information with them you are making them part of the decision and you create a sense of ownership.

Honesty and human face – by being open and honest even at times when you are lost and unsure about the correct course of action and if you freely admit mistakes you put a human face on you and will be more acceptable for others. They will follow you because they will know that you won’t lie to safe your face.

Sharing and empowerment – sharing information, sharing responsibility and sharing the means to get things done leads to empowerment. Empowered teams will accomplish the goals, will stay together and will love their work without much external stimuli

What about compensation?

The ultimate test of open environment is sharing information about compensation of the members of the team or at least that of management. Compensation is one of the most emotional topics in the business environment and figuring out a way to get it out of the table can have a really positive effect on productivity and motivation of the team. If you hide the information, you have unclear rules on how are individuals compensated, you don’t communicate openly decisions why someone got increase of salary and why this particular number you create an opportunity for guessing, gossip and false beliefs. People are curious so they will try to estimate salaries of others, their own worth and will most likely create picture that is very far from the reality. Most of us have the tendency of overestimating our own value. At the same time we tend to believe that we are not compensated well enough and the others must make whole bunch more. Why else would they look so happy? Wouldn’t it make sense to introduce as much clarity and transparency so you align better the expectations and the reality?

In a book “Maverick!” Ricardo Semler describes some of the inner workings of Brazilian manufacturing company Semco. It is a workplace where he created completely transparent environment with very flat organizational structure and without hidden agendas and office politics. It is a place run by democratic principles where employees are truly empowered. For example, each of the executives could set their own salaries without any need of someone approving it. Of course, everyone in the company would know their salary so that created environment where people would set salaries for themselves that would be seen as fair by others. Or another example from Semco, before people are hired or promoted to leadership positions, they are interviewed and approved by all who will be working for them. Every six months managers are evaluated by those who work under them. The results are posted for all to see thus pushing the manager to constantly improve and make sure their teams are willing to follow.

Twitter type summary: “Information is power! Give as much power as possible to the team and create a sense of ownership and desire to reach the common goal.”

What is your position? What sort of information do you believe should be hidden from your team and why?

Life is not fair! So what?

Life is not fair! Who told you it is? It is not, and let’s be grateful for that. Why? Because what is and isn’t fair means different thing to each of us. Let me give you an example from my childhood. I have a sister that is two years younger. When I was ten years old I had a great appetite and was able to eat an enormous amount of food. She was eight and didn’t eat much. It is Sunday, we have a lunch and both of us get a steak. Only one! She cannot almost eat it. I gobble it up and then had to eat tons of bread or potatoes as I still feel hungry. Each of us got one steak. Was it fair? According to my mom it was. According to me it of course wasn’t. I eat twice as much so I deserve two steaks. Did I produced twice as much work, or was twice as much nicer? In my mind, not relevant. And let’s be grateful that life is not fair because, maybe, I didn’t deserve a steak at all…

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “fair” as (among other things):

  • a: marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism <a very fair person to do business with>
  • b (1): conforming with the established rules : allowed
  • b (2): consonant with merit or importance : due <a fair share>

So what does this mean in a professional environment for a leader? How do you explain to your team whether something is or is not fair? How do you react when you are approached by a subordinate demanding a new computer because it is not fair that his colleague got one and he didn’t? How do you make the unfair life for everyone as much fair as possible? One way is to make sure you make your decision as impersonal as possible. To do just that you should consider couple of thoughts.

Have clear values and stick to them

Having a solid value system will not only help you to get through rough times but will also guide your team. If you live by your values and your team sees that your actions are in line with your words you gain respect and trust. When people trust you they will feel that you are fair in dealing with them and the others. If everyone knows that one of the basic values you adhere to is the need of fairness it will be much more easier for you to push forward actions that you believe are fair even if they may not seem so fair to others. They will still see that this is what you strongly believe in and because it is consistent with your actions in the past they will follow.

Be able to explain your position

Always be able to answer the “Why” question. If you are unable to explain why you believe something is fair and needs to be done then how can you expect others to believe in it? People have different points of view on what “fair” is and being able to explain your position is the key.

Be transparent and consistent

Explaining your position is the start. The next step is to announce it to the team so they understand what the decision is, why it was done, and why you believe it is fair this way. It is there for everyone to see. You prevent people speculating about hidden agendas and secret deals, you show them trust and because it is consistent with your standard behavior the team will accept your view of the fairness. And even if they don’t believe it deep in their hearts they will at least accept it.

Set the rules and follow them

To help you being consistent you may need more than set of values. What helps is having couple of basic rules derived from your values. Value itself might be difficult to explain. You can have values like “openness” or “fairness” but what does it actually means? As discussed before these may mean different things to different people so you need to have set of simple rules that explain the values.

Play with the cards you’ve got

Sometimes you get to a tough spot when whatever you do it is clear that your actions will not be seen fair by everyone. There will be those who will feel that even after your explanation it just isn’t fair. Then don’t dwell on the fairness and turn it around. Don’t focus on the negative impact to that individual but find the positive side. As the saying goes “every cloud has a silver lining” and it is just a question of mindset. If you help your team member who feel something wasn’t fair to find the positive side in long-term or just push his focus away of the issue to something more positive it helps. It will not change anything on the decision or the way the person feels about it but it will move his attention to something more positive. And human brain is wired in such a way that we get more of things and feelings we focus on.

Let me illustrate these things on a simple example. Your company sits in a building that offers ten parking spots per hundred people. How do you decide who should get the spot and who needs to park farther away from the office? What most companies would do is to give it to the most senior team members, usually managers. Is it fair? Sure it is, from the perspective of the managers. But what the perspective of the team? They work as hard as the managers so why the preferential treatment? What if the environment you are creating promotes equality? What if you want the managers to be really close to the team? Then you just cannot do it this way. So you follow the principles outlined above and can come up for example with something like this:

  • Have clear values and stick to them = you treat all your people with respect and the same way regarding of the title or position in the company
  • Set the rules and follow them = who comes from outside the city limits gets the parking spot, who lives in the city can use other means; be clear in that you understand there are other approaches that can be seen as fair by someone, but since we selected one approach we will follow it
  • Be transparent and consistent = be clear on who got the spot; don’t make exceptions, that would break trust of the team
  • Be able to explain your position = you provide equal opportunities and you believe that for a team work everyone has should get an equal chance to feel the successes but also the pain (not having space to park the car); only because someone has a fancy title doesn’t make him better person than rest of the team
  • Play with the cards you got = for those who travel just from within the city the use of public transport can be a hidden opportunity to read, or to use bicycle and do something for their health; or bring up solidarity with those who have to travel from far away

The best thing you can do as a leader and in fact as an individual is to learn to play with the cards life deals to you. Compare it with a game of poker or any other card game. When you get your cards dealt you don’t get angry or upset and start complaining that it is not fair you got just one pair and your opponent royal flush. You just accept the cards and make the best out of it. With that attitude you will enjoy the game and be glad you can be with your friends and have some relaxing time. So why not to behave the same way in the real life?

Twitter type summary: “Sticking with your values, being firm, transparent and consistent in your actions will make you seen as a leader who is fair.”

How do you decide what is fair? Does it even matter? How do you deal with people who feel your decisions are not fair and who are hurt by it?