Sharing Information: A Counterintuitive Key to Success

I’ve always been a big believer in sharing information. As a college professor, I used to give out the final exam on the first day of class—and spend the rest of the semester teaching students the answers so they could master the material and get an A.

The same principle works in business. If leaders want to build a culture of trust, responsibility, and mastery, they need to share information with people. Giving team members the information they need enables them to make good business decisions.

Sharing information sometimes means disclosing information that is considered privileged, including sensitive and important topics such as future business plans and strategies, financial data, and industry issues or problem areas. Providing people with more complete information communicates trust and a sense of “we’re in this together.” It helps people think more broadly about the organization and the interrelationships of various groups, resources, and goals.

By having access to information that helps them understand the big picture, people can better appreciate how their contribution fits in and how their behavior impacts other aspects of the organization. All of this leads to responsible, goal-related use of people’s knowledge, experience, and motivation. While this runs counter to the thinking of a lot of top-down managers, the philosophy is based on the following premise:

 

People without accurate information cannot act responsibly;

people with accurate information feel compelled to act responsibly.

 

In an example close to home, The Ken Blanchard Companies, like many businesses, was negatively impacted by the events of September 11, 2001. In fact, the company lost $1.5 million in sales that month. To have any chance of ending the fiscal year in the black, the company would have to cut about $350,000 a month in expenses.

The leadership team had some tough decisions to make. One of the leaders suggested that the staffing level be cut by at least 10 percent to stem the losses and help get the company back in the black—a typical response in most companies.

As with any major decision, members of the leadership team checked the decision to cut staff against the rank-ordered organizational values of ethical behavior, relationships, success, and learning. Was the decision to let people go at such a difficult time ethical? To many, the answer was no. There was a general feeling that because the staff had made the company what it was, putting people out on the street at a time like this just was not the right thing to do. Did the decision to let people go honor the high value that the organization placed on relationships? No, it did not. But what could be done? The company could not go on bleeding money and be successful.

Knowing that “no one of us is as smart as all of us,” the leadership team decided to draw on the knowledge and talents of the entire staff. At an all-company meeting, the books were opened to show everyone how much the company was bleeding, and from where. This open-book policy unleashed a torrent of ideas and commitment. Small task forces were organized to look for ways to increase revenues and cut costs. This participation resulted in departments throughout the company finding all kinds of ways to minimize spending and maximize income. As the company’s Chief Spiritual Officer, I cheered people on by announcing we would all go to Hawaii together when the company got through the crisis. People smiled politely, although many had their doubts.

Over the next two years, the finances gradually turned around. By 2004, the company produced the highest sales in its history, exceeding its annual goal. In March 2005, our entire company—350 people strong—flew to Maui for a four-day celebration.

So the next time you’re stuck, consider sharing information. You might be surprised by the positive results.

Set Boundaries for an Empowered Workforce

Setting boundaries to help empower people might sound like a contradiction. When managed correctly, though, well placed boundaries can ensure a strong culture of empowerment for your entire company.

I’ve often said that a river without banks is a large puddle. If you empower people by setting them loose without any direction, they can lose momentum and focus—or, even worse, they can make costly mistakes or put a project at risk. Like the banks of a river, properly set boundaries will channel energy in the right direction so that people can take on more responsibility as they grow and develop.

The key to setting boundaries is to ensure people know the areas where they can be autonomous and responsible rather than focusing on things they are not permitted to do. Boundaries are based on each person’s skill level and are meant to help the person understand how their goals align with the overall vision and goals of the organization. Helping people see how their work fits into the big picture allows them to become peak performers.

It is also important for managers to explain the decision making process in an empowered culture. Some people think being empowered means they get to make all the decisions. They could be disappointed when the manager continues to make strategic decisions and leaves only some operational decisions to them. And they might hesitate to make decisions at all when they realize they will be held accountable for the results—both good and bad.

Yes, empowerment means people have the freedom to act, but it also means they are accountable for results. The right balance is to have managers continue making strategic decisions and get team members involved in making more operational decisions as they become more comfortable with assuming the potential risks involved. As people gradually accept more responsibility for decisions and consequences, managers can pull back on their involvement.

It takes a little time in the beginning for managers to establish boundaries for team members, but this investment has a huge payoff. The worst thing a manager can do is to send people off on their own with no clear direction and then punish them when they make mistakes. Don’t fall into that trap. Establish clear boundaries that will empower people to make decisions, take initiative, act like owners, and stay on track to reach both personal and organizational goals.