Change in me is a familiar companion unknown to others

In the need to know – Version 3.jpg

Announcements are made daily in the news about decisions that create change for others. For example, a new freeway, the restructuring of a company, a merger or even the launch of a new product. For most people on the receiving end of this news there will be no lead up, no forewarning. Instead there will be the sudden realisation and even shock that what they knew before is no longer going to be the same.

The interesting thing for me is that the people on the other side of such change are the opposite. They not only know what is going on they have more than likely been in discussion and planning about it for a while.

The 'In the know' advantage

The difference then between those ‘in the know’ and those ‘in the dark’ is enormous on many levels. Firstly the people who are planning and discussing the change are able to process their experience with each other. They are in a shared discussion from day one about the idea, the decision and the plans. They are able to work together through mutual acceptance. This is not denying those in the know also have their fair share of adjustment. However the control factor of having input in the decision is a balancing force.

Or not...

Those creating change behind closed doors can also have a mix of emotions. In many situations there is assumed responsibility for others. There is full awareness often that the decisions will affect others. Knowing and working with this inside information can take it’s toll.

For example the executive who on the outside is to keep up appearances of running a company but then knows that to remain profitable there must be staff cuts.  I have spoken with some many about this matter or similar in my coaching and no one ever says this is easy.  Some have even talked about sleepless nights and guilt of feeling responsible for others' seeming misfortune.

This personal struggle of leadership decision making is tempered in some organisations by indirect regulation. For example in a listed company when a change is going to affect the share price there is a requirement for 'continuous disclosure' to the exchange.  Of course there are discerning criteria to determine if this is required. I think it is interesting how it takes a financial regulation of disclosure to prompt sharing of information.  I also fully understand the need for a company to hold back on disclosure as long as possible so as not to compromise a deal or other market position.

Information power

Still my comments are not about the business strategy side of management. Mine are about the human element, the people involved and affected during change and how information is controlled in such a process.  Information is power. When we have it and no one else does we are in control. This power can be a legitimate factor of doing business. It can also be a manipulation of positional authority and access.  In the case of a business working through decisions it is inherent that the governance and checks and balances keep this clear.

We have the people 'in the know' working through a decision together. They may have agreed to confidentiality, even signed agreements to this affect just in case.  So in times of change, a change is more than an announcement. It is a dance of many behind the scenes. It is also a play of people in roles balancing between self interest, organisational interests and others.

From 'in the know' to 'need to know'

The test for the level of involvement in a culture is the ‘need to know’ test. I love this expression because it is such a subjective idiom.  First of all the person or group in control of the information is fully in charge of deciding who needs to know. In change situations this discernment test is heightened in the favour of the information holder. The person who might want or need to know has no idea so can never advocate for knowing. It is a one way communication direction.  When there is change occurring what happens with the need to know. Do people hold information close and tight or share wide and far? Why do they do either?  These are questions of human behaviour.

As we delve into culture we see there is another factor in this intellectual mind game of disclosure- trust and integrity.  I say this because in general when people are in 'need to know' information control scenarios during change they are essentially deciding who they can trust with this information. They are also deciding in almost a paternalistic way who can handle this information. It is a very top down hierarchical flow.

What you don't know won't hurt you?

Interestingly the unknowing of many about an impending change helps to manage the day to day operations. In other words...when I don’t know what I don’t know I need to know then I have nothing to worry about.  

There is this almost naivete of being out of the loop.   This is akin to not reading the paper, looking at social media, watching or listening to the news. Then when something happens you don’t find out until it spreads. 

But then when one does finally know there is more opportunity for reaction, misinterpretation and judgement about being perceivingly 'in the dark'.  Yes there are communication plans to manage reaction. There is analysis to anticipate directions.  What all this says at a basic level is someone knows better about what you should and should not know.

A flip in approach and a challenge

What if there was more focus on what those not in the know are experiencing for real? What if the flip side of the view was to work with others along the way and not keep people in the dark about events and decisions that will impact them? What if we treated people like adults from the outset? What if more were involved in the decision making process?

I feel it is time to rethink the process of change in organisations with the 'in the know' and 'need to know' paradigms and the ensuing managing reactions. It is time to consider other ways to be informative, inclusive and engaged. Not just in an appearances sense. Not just to satisfy a change management program. No but to genuinely and authentically respect and acknowledge all involved.