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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