Sharing is Caring

Talent Management

November 20, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

In my last column, I discussed how communication breakdowns in organizations can hinder their operations, if not shut them down altogether. This month, I’ll address why these lapses are happen in the first place and how they can be avoided.

Today, the cliché that knowledge is power is truer than ever, which makes withholding key data extremely counterproductive – inhibiting or suppressing vital information for any reason eliminates value. So, why is this such a common problem?

Essentially, there are two reasons. The first is when people take their competitive nature too far. It’s the same old need to win, only more underhanded. People take the phrase “knowledge is power” too literally, thinking the object of the game is to hoard as much information as possible.

The problem with willfully withholding information, though, is it rarely achieves the desired effect. You might think you’re gaining an edge and consolidating power, but you’re actually breeding mistrust and disdain. To have real power, you need to inspire loyalty rather than fear and suspicion.

Of course, this stubborn, poison-sowing refusal to share information isn’t the only source of communication problems. In any case, I’m not sure I have the skill or the patience to try and alter that kind of Machiavellian behavior.

Instead, I prefer to focus on the unintentional or accidental ways we withhold information. We do this when we’re too busy to get back to people with information they need. We do this when we forget to include someone in our discussions or meetings. We do this when we delegate a task to our subordinates but don’t take the time to show or explain to them exactly how we want the task done.

If you don’t understand why any of that annoys people, reflect on how you felt anytime you’ve experienced the following:

2 When no one told you about a meeting.

2 When no one sent you an important e-mail or memo.

2 When you were the last person to know about something.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. One of my neighbors asked his teenage son to wash his Lexus sport utility vehicle. The young man pulled out the hose, filled a bucket with soapy water and scrubbed the automobile with a sponge. Problem was, that sponge had two sides – one that was soft and one that was scratchy. Guess which side his son used to clean the car.

Not surprisingly, the father was furious when he came to inspect the results and found much of the Lexus’ shiny enamel finish scrubbed off. The once-smooth surface now resembled an ice-skating rink after a hockey game.

“Don’t you know how to do something as simple as washing a car?” he asked between snorts of rage.

Yet, as my neighbor thought about it (and as he noticed his son getting embarrassed and upset), he came to a wise conclusion.

“Son,” he said reassuringly, “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at myself because I should have told you how to do this job properly. I never taught you how to wash a car, and that’s my fault.”

More often than not, we don’t withhold information out of malice. Rather, we do it because we’re clueless. Don’t get me wrong – that’s a good thing! Communication difficulties resulting from spite aren’t something we can fix here.

Cluelessness, on the other hand, is relatively easy to change. But first we have to recognize it and accept that the failure is ours, not our interlocutor’s.

Not sharing information well doesn’t equate to purposefully withholding it. The two aren’t the same. The results are very similar to the people who are affected by either one, however.

So, how do you stop withholding information? Simple: Start sharing it. Make a point of doing it often.

In doing so, you’ll not only improve your communication skills (practice makes perfect) but also show you care about your superiors, colleagues and direct reports.

It’s not often that we get such an obvious two-for-the-price-of-one solution to our interpersonal challenges, but making the shift from withholding information to sharing it is one of them.