Monday, March 23, 2009

When people lack good information: Quote of the Week

Wow, this one hit my like a ton of bricks.

When people lack good information, they will invent some information themselves. When they don't know how well their project is doing, they will try to guess. When they don't know how other teams are performing, they will make assumptions. When they don't understand what their colleagues contribute to the organization, they will invent their own reasons. And when they don't know about their manager's personal life, they will gossip about it.

To prevent bad information from flowing through the organization you have to give people good information.

Jurgen Appelo

Jurgen’s blog has been a fixture in my RSS reader for quite some time and I’ve shared many of his posts in the past.  He has a knack for speaking coherently to issues that are very relevant to my situation.

As for the point he’s making here, I don’t think that, in most cases, information is “maliciously” withheld.  I do think some managers believe that certain information will just distract their employees and so they withhold it.  This tends to lead towards a vicious cycle where the employees are worried about the lack of information (and then the subsequent assumptions) which therefore makes the managers more concerned about distractions and therefore less willing to share information.

As developers we’re all about quick feedback.  We want quick compile times so that we can immediately know if we’ve broken something.  Unit tests give us additional feedback.  One of the reasons ReSharper is such a valuable tool is that it gives you information on potential problems quickly.  I want more information because it gives me a better sense of the overall context in which to make decisions about my code.

Quoting a quote from the post, “The concept is that the more employees know, and understand, the more they will partner and support the company's mission and goals.”  This is brilliant and yet at the same time very obvious!  The corollary is “only when employees care about financial figures, they will think of ways how to improve them.”  If managers don’t share information that gives employees feedback on their actions (how their actions impact the financial health of the company in the above example), then there will be no way that they will be able to effectively change things to improve without stumbling around in the dark.

No information leads to speculation and gossip which leads to incorrect information which is a poor substitute for correct information.  As Jurgen points out, the only way to clean out the system is to flush it with so much correct information that there is no room for speculation.


  1. Transparency and general information sharing is awesome, but sometimes you can take it too far. For example, discussing personal details (e.g., health care, compensation, and personal finances) in group settings is a bad idea, even in the name of encouraging employees' to make more financially-based decisions. This strategy encourages speculation and gossip, and ultimately destroys morale while ostracizing individuals.

    Any time you hear (or find yourself saying) "I don't want to single anyone out", or "Let's take so-and-so's situation as an example" you are in the danger zone.

  2. Personal items (health issues and personal finances) are something that people can share when they want to share. But compensation isn't a personal thing, it's a company decision. It's the company's way of saying "I value this person's contribution this much". If the company can't be open about how much they value (or don't value) their employees, there are other cultural issues at work, generally because they are overpaying or underpaying individuals and they don't want to fix the problem. Keeping it open means that they can't underpay those that perform well but don't have the "political" skills to get the raises they deserve nor can they overpay those that have "tenure" and may have performed well at one point but haven't kept up.

    Unfortunately it's kind of a chicken and egg problem. If the culture was such that having salary info be open, then many of the root issues wouldn't exist and therefore people wouldn't care if it was open or not because management would be trusted.


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