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Why do we communicate with employees? A very good answer to a very old question

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Recently I stumbled across a reference on the Internet to Sharing Information with Employees, a 1942 book that I believe is the first written on the subject of employee communication. I located it and was delighted to find it’s as relevant today as ever—and probably the most substantive book I’ve read on the subject.

I’ve written a white paper about the book (Employee Communication Is Different, downloadable here for free). But in the interest of provoking thought and spurring conversation I include some passages particularly relevant to executives and the people who support them who are trying to fashion a philosophy for communication with employees—what should be said, and why.

In the first section here, author Alexander Heron, a labor relations executive who knows firsthand of what he speaks, identifies “honest objections to sharing information with employees.”

The first, he says, is that “in spite of the fact that most executives in American enterprises have risen from the ranks, many of them secretly believe that there is a difference between their own mentalities and those of the men today who are in the ranks. They feel vaguely, and sometimes say definitely, that the rank and file cannot understand the information which management can give them.

This belief can neither be ignored nor denied. It may be sound as to a great portion of the men and women who work for wages. But most of the executives with the superior minds will not argue that things should be so. They will not assert that this general inability to understand is a good foundation for the structure of our democracy or a healthy condition among people who are trying to govern themselves. They will say it is too bad, but it just happens to be true; that we may not like it but cannot alter it; that some people are just born that way. …

Are some people just born without the ability to understand? Some people? All of us were born that way. We were also born without the ability to walk; but we learned by trying. We were born without the ability to talk, or read, or write; but we learned, by trying as we were given the chance. So did the employees who now work for us. Incidentally, they were born without the ability to do the work for which we now hire them; but they learned that as they were given the opportunity. …

… in addition to those who believe it true but regrettable that employees cannot understand such information as we are discussing, there are others who believe it true but not regrettable. They say that some people are just born that way, and they will go on to imply that this is in accordance with some divine plan. It seems to them inevitable that human society be classified and stratified, in the same manner as a hive of bees: If all bees were workers, there would be no organization under qualified leadership. If all were queens, there would be no honey. If all human beings were endowed by nature with keen, alert, understanding minds, none of us would be satisfied to work for wages or at manual tasks; we would all want to be bosses.

This attitude has a lot of history behind it. It is the idea of both ancient and modern tyrannies under which conquered enemies became the slaves of the conquerors. It is the idea of the medieval aristocracies with their ruling classes …

Heron acknowledges that all management teams are willing to share some information, and many are willing to share lots of information. But their motives for doing so, in most cases, are not sufficiently “aggressive” to effect the kind of “understanding” Heron envisions between management and employees. Most employee information-sharing, he says, is based on one of three inferior types of willingness:

1. The “reluctant” willingness, in which the employer shares information with employees because they’ll probably find out about it in the papers anyway or hear about it from union organizers. “All things considered,” the reluctant executive communicator reasons, “we should offset these possibilities by giving the information ourselves …” This attitude, however sound, is “negative,” Heron says. “It is merely seeking the avoidance of certain undesirable possibilities.” Set to the goal of achieving understanding between workers and management, the “reluctant” willingness won’t cut the mustard.

2. The “paternalistic” willingness. I won’t burden you with anymore information than I think you need to do your job. Even proffered by the most benevolent boss, this policy puts the sharer of information in the position of “carefully selecting for his employees the information which he knows they should have and giving them no other.” Needless to say, this philosophy doesn’t create a full understanding between employees and management either.

3. The “propagandist” willingness to share information. “With no distortion or falsehood in its technique, it relies on selection and interpretation. Those facts which tend to create favorable reactions are selected to be given to the employees. … In the sense in which favorable facts are selected for this propaganda program, it follows that unfavorable facts are suppressed. Because it aims at a specific and desired employee reaction, such a program must be like a government ‘information service,’ a combination of the functions of publicity and censorship.”

If you’re like me, you don’t disagree that the above types of willingness each leave something to be desired, but you’re waiting to see what kind of communication attitude Heron expects from executives who would foster the understanding he’s looking for. He calls it “aggressive willingness,” and here’s how he describes it:

[T]here is an aggressive willingness to share information with employees which has a foundation both deeper and more practical. It reaches deep into the soil of democracy, being rooted in the recognition that John Jones, wage-earning employee, is a sacred human individual. His best achievement as a worker must be voluntary; it must be reached in co-operation with all the other independent personalities grouped into the enterprise of which he is a part. To gain satisfactory performance merely by bribing him with wages and privileges, or by threatening him vaguely with unemployment, is to repudiate the sacredness of his personality. To share with him the knowledge which should enable him to reason his way to willing co-operation is to treat his personality with the respect he deserves.

The aggressive willingness to share information with employees is practical because, honestly and wisely followed through, it will induce a constructive co-operation which cannot be bought or forced.

What type of willingness does your executive possess? Let me know: vseditor@mcmurry.com.