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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Why Top Executives Keep Employees in The Dark

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Have you ever noticed that most organizations don't spend a lot of time telling you how they get things done?

Typically, very little information is available explicitly:

  • Our management guru of choice: Is it Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, or someone else? What books do we read, what discipline do we follow?
  • The history, mission and current challenges facing the organization: When did it get started? What were the meaningful moments? Who do we revere here? What difference did they make? What do we need to do now, and why?
  • The little things: When people go to lunch. How to address superiors (first name only or more formally?), send emails (short or long, or maybe we usually talk in person), and so on?
  • The brass tacks: What are our standard operating procedures? How do we define each job? Your job? When we sit down together at the end of the year and talk about a bonus, will you have known all this time what you could have done to earn it?

No matter how sophisticated your operation, only human beings can get the work done. Only people can make the decisions, pull the levers, and leverage the technologies. So why do we leave them grasping for answers in the dark?

I think the answer is that the higher they go up the food chain, the less executives understand how very little most people in the organization know. That’s because they are having conversations at the top. Most executives not only don't understand the downstream impact of ignorance, they actually do not see, and cannot understand, that it exists.

But they do see that employees are unmotivated, that they don't care.

Here's a good way to fix that problem: Tell people what is going on, what you want from them, and how they can help. In short:

“A company is people … employees want to know… am I being listened to or am I a cog in the wheel? People really need to feel wanted.” -- Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Enterprises

You don't have to make a big deal out of "internal communication" programs or hire a huge specialized staff to speak in a foreign language to those you manage. Just step back and let them do what they are supposed to do in the first place. 

If you don't, guess what is going to happen?

They will "divorce" you.

But before they leave, they'll be disengaged, pushing email back and forth, getting into needless conflicts with other employees, and eventually marking time while they find another employer that loves and values them.

Of course, there are many intelligently run organizations out there. They make sure that staff members know their place on the team, that they're up to speed, formally and informally. 

Here’s Richard Branson again: 

“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”

In fact, great organizations go well beyond informing. Their focus is on marketing, and they market from top to bottom and all the way back up again because they know that employees are really all they have in terms of assets. With every word, every assignment, every email and every chat they communicate: 

“You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.” -- Herb Brooks (1937-2003), head coach of the extraordinary 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team    

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity. 

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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