City+: Office politics #6

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The Independent Online
Managing openness

It's the same old story. Everyone's reading about the latest company restructuring in the local press. As usual, no one's bothered to let the staff know what's going on. It's what you've come to expect. It wouldn't matter so much if managers weren't spouting their latest company values: openness and honesty! How do they expect people to be able to do their jobs if they don't have the information they need - and they're nervous about what's going on behind the scenes.

How do you make sure that you are in the picture, and encourage others to be open and honest, too?

Your role

Most companies talk about the need to become more open. But in a fast changing environment, where project working, teamworking across disciplines and delayering are now the norm, many of the traditional communications links have broken down. Ironically, never before have people needed to know what's going on quite as much as they do today. You can play a part in this. You have many contacts and - although you may have no formal responsibility for communications - you can play an active and very useful role in sharing information and encouraging openness in others.

Informing yourself

We all need information in order to do our jobs better. But it's remarkable the number of people who are happy to sit around complaining that no one tells them anything, rather than finding out. "Remember that communication is a two-way thing. If you feel there's something going on, or you need some background information, or you want to know how a specific project is progressing, just ask. Nine times out of 10, people will be happy to tell you. If you are refused, you might think about gently asking why. Have your arguments ready as to why you need the information. Your motivation - and how other people view it - is the key here. Do you want information to hoard or to spread; to boost your own importance (knowledge is power) or to ensure that as few people as possible are left in the dark?

Informing others

In the old days, your role might have been more to do with withholding information than being an active part of the communications explosion. For example, personal assistants of the old school sometimes saw themselves as gatekeepers, protecting their bosses from bad news or people who might make them unhappy - angry customers or disgruntled staff, for instance. Most bosses these days don't want this sort of protection. However, you need authority to adopt a proactive stance. Check who else can know and, if it seems appropriate, offer to pass the information on yourself. Be warned, though: a manager's natural instinct is often to keep things secret. They may respond with "I don't think they need to know..." or "I'm sure people won't be interested in that..." If you've been keeping your ear to the ground, you'll know that people are interested and they do need to know. Say so. Another objection may be, "It's more trouble than it's worth. Remember what happened last time we were open with people?" But often, it's not the message, it's the way it was communicated: too late, patronising, selective, not entirely open, or not entirely credible. You can point this out. But do it in the most tactful way possible. Help your boss to avoid making the same mistakes again.

When you do have permission to communicate the information, do it in a balanced way. Don't just point out the upsides. Don't go too far the other way either, being entirely negative about the proposed change. Prepare your story. Think about the different audiences, too. Who will be interested in what? Anticipate their questions and concerns and have your responses ready. Remembering that communication is two-way, take their feedback and offer to pass it on to your boss. Make it clear that you are not going to shop anyone - the comments will be anonymous - but that it will be better for management to know their response.

You may feel like one small cog in the huge machinery of the organisation, but your contribution to communication can be significant. And when others start following your example, that's when real openness can be achieved.

John Nicholson and Jane Clarke are directors of Nicholson McBride, the business psychology consultancy