Why Telling the Truth Trumps Secrecy

Some executives think it’s best to keep things ‘close to the vest’.  They believe their employees can’t handle the truth.  They believe their own knowledge is sufficient to carry the day.

Those executives are flushing the intellectual capital of their company down the drain.

Employees know more than their bosses give them credit for.

Working, by Studs Terkel, was probably one of the first business books I read.  In that book, published in the mid-70’s, he said, “People are doing repetitive stuff – big people in little assignments grinding away at jobs too small for their souls.”

I love that quote.

[Sidebar: I just realized today that Studs Terkel and I share the same birthday (40-some years apart).  That explains why though why I so resonated with his message.]

In any event, Studs was on to something way before there were quality circles, employee engagement initiatives, participatory management styles.  In the mid-70’s, command-and-control, top-down hierarchical corporate structures were the rule of the day.

Things have changed now – in forward-thinking US companies, at least.  I remember a conversation I had with a female Mexican National executive working in a big bank in a Texas border town.  She was having a hard time understanding why she needed to ask employees what they thought and take the time to explain the decisions she made.

She was used to the ’cause I said so’ approach.  That may appear to work in the short term, but even seemingly obedient employees are likely seething under the surface, looking for ways to exert any remaining control and power they have. And if the resentment has been building for a while, you can bet that exertion will make the individual feel good, not the team or the company.

Another client, a newly minted Partner in one of the Big 4 public accounting firms, was complaining about being over-worked.

Yet when I interviewed one of the most senior managers on his team, he lamented “Dave” (name changed to protect the guilty) wouldn’t be working nearly so hard if he would just recognize how competent and capable his team really is.

More big people in little assignments, their souls and minds wasting away. Pity.

So what’s a poor executive to do?

Executives of high-growth, profitable companies recognize that they might not have all the answers. They push decision making down to levels so low they probably lose sleep over it at first.

They disclose more than they are comfortable with.

They lay their cards on the table and ask for help.

They trust that their employees – the ones they want to keep, at least – do have the company’s interests (at least in part) at heart.

They know employees want to keep their jobs and want their friends to stick around as well.

The execs should recognize that they can’t possibly know everything there is to know about the operations of the company and that the people doing the work likely have the best ideas for improving it.

Ask them.

They’ll surprise you with their knowledge and insight.  If they don’t, it’s likely because you’ve been treating them like children rather than the big-souled, big people that they are.

It takes guts to share knowledge, to let go of control, to turn over the reigns to someone else. But when done properly, miracles happen.  You just have be willing to allow them.

Don’t believe me, read this success story, CEO’s Tough Budget Call Pays Off.

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