Behind Closed Doors

Being too selective with your communication is a surefire way to blow your trust out of the water, slow important stuff down and piss your employees right off. We talk a lot about openness and we often don’t see the behaviour to back it up. Let me give you an example.

During my time in BT Global Services we went through a very difficult period and a new CEO was appointed from within the company to lead some necessary change. He spoke about how things were going to be different, said we needed to trust each other and used words like open and honest, and we were invited to contribute our ideas and thoughts on how we might work differently.

What followed were periods of silence from the top, they felt like forever though in reality were probably only a couple of weeks or so at a time. When folks know change is coming – they don’t like silence and soon, stories and half truths begin to walk the corridors like wraiths in a dodgy horror movie.

The silence was punctuated by updates via conference call and webinar, and huge, dull, uninformative PowerPoint decks were waded through. We quickly became quite grateful that all the updating was done virtually – people’s absence is so much harder to detect that way. It became clear that the reason for such long gaps in communication through our time of uncertainty was in part due to a form of cascade briefing.

News was radiated out from the CEO and his team, layer by layer and being represented in slightly different flavours as it cascaded out. I was a General Manager at the time so got to see a lot more than some others, but it wasn’t until I asked specifically that I realised people were being briefed very differently according to their position in the hierarchy. The default position was ‘Tell ’em as little as possible’, the whole thing sucked and the vast engine room of befuddlement (for it truly was vast) was a huge drain on resources and morale. I left shortly after, this managed and layered method of disseminating information was one of the key reasons I no longer wanted to put my heart and soul into the company.

The approach didn’t work, things didn’t improve and so it was deemed that further change at the top was required. Shortly before leaving BT, Hanif Lalani said in an interview with The Times: “I think the ‘stand-up-and-speak-your-mind culture’ doesn’t exist [at BT]. When you’ve come through the civil service you do what you’re told. I think there’s a characteristic that’s still there and one that you would really want to break,” he said. “You want people to stand up and give their views and I think people are reluctant to do that. As we bring more people in, you can see that changing slowly. But I don’t think it’s one of those natural things here.”

As he prepared to leave, the Finance Director web site said Lalani finished his career with BT under a cloud, calling it “an ignominious end”. I can’t help but feel that if Lalani practiced what he preached he would have helped create a much better, more productive working environment for everyone and less importantly perhaps, a better end to his time with the company.

Of course it’s up to each and every company to decide how it wants to communicate and there may be sensitive issues that warrant due care and attention. But I think the default position should be we tell people as much as possible and work back from there as needed, not the other way around.

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Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

4 thoughts on “Behind Closed Doors”

  1. I find it fascinating to hear about the inside workings of big organisations. I’ve only ever worked in places where either I’m the owner, or I’m sitting right next to the owner.

    All these management manouevrings and power-plays are like an episode of Dallas.

    1. I think small companies can f*ck things up quite well too, battles of ego etc aren’t necessarily confined to big business.

  2. Ah, Hanif Lalani. Wasn’t he the FD who got together all BT suppliers and said ‘we are changing our payment terms to 90 days, like it or lump it’. Which is bullying really, particularly to the small businesses that today’s government is trying to encourage. But certainly communicated very clearly! But poor communication wasn’t the only problem at BT….it took me 5 months to get paid once.

    Given Claire Chapman (who has a fabulous reputation) has now been the Group HRD for about one year and has a very different style to Alex Wilson, it would be very interesting to see how much the communication culture has changed. And HR, whilst not responsible for culture – the CEO is – should have a really strong influence.

    Any inside news on this Doug?

    1. Hi Julia – stories of BT being among the slowest payers abound and whilst I have no personal experience of this, I’ve never quite understood where it fits in terms of BT’s social responsibility plans.

      I don’t agree that the CEO is responsible for the culture of a workplace – I think everyone is. In my dealings with the BT CEO I’ve found him defensive, generally negative in his outlook and quite aggressive towards me. And that was before I had the nerve to write about him and his company’s poor customer service!

      In the main my dealings with BT people has been much more favourable, though the most recent feedback with a previous colleague went something like, ‘the levels of mistrust and micro management just get progressively worse here – you are well off out of it.’ This is of course just one view, nevertheless from someone who I’ve always considered to be quite in touch with what’s hot and what’s not. There will doubtless be more favourable views too.

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