Can employees be trusted with sensitive information?

sensitive information
Tim Baker

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written on May 11, 2017

“You’ll get told on a need to know basis?” “No news is good news.” We’ve all heard these comments.

They’re founded on the commonly held belief that employees can’t be trusted with sensitive information.

When it comes to sharing information, many managers operate on two false assumptions. They assume that employees can’t be trusted with sensitive information. These managers believe there’s a high risk that employees will pass confidential information onto an inappropriate source outside the organisation, such as a union.

A matter of trust

The commonly held belief is that managers are more trustworthy than employees when it comes to access to confidential company information. Management can be trusted to not misuse information, but employees cannot.

However, managers are no less or more trustworthy than employees.

Of course, there are many more employees than managers, so perhaps the potential for the abuse of information is greater. But the idea that employees are less trustworthy is obviously complete nonsense.

The fact that leaders harbour this false belief is not lost on employees; they know that withholding information from them is symptomatic of a lack of faith and trust. This assumption erodes trust levels – and has a negative effect on the collaborative working relationship that’s fundamental to creating an agile workforce.

Controlling information

The second incorrect assumption is that information can be controlled by withholding it.

This belief is flawed for two reasons.

First, information vacuums are quickly filled with other information – accurate, or not – which can be more damaging than sharing the correct information in the first place. And second, social media has disrupted the idea that you can completely control the flow of information. So, instead of trying to contain information, managers should do the opposite; that is, increase the flow of information throughout the enterprise.

Although today’s knowledge worker is exposed to more information and has a greater expectation to be kept informed than ever before, there’s still a lingering attitude that divulging too much information to employees is counterproductive.

It’s certainly no coincidence that one of the biggest gripes employees have about management across nearly every industry is that they are frequently “kept in the dark”; they aren’t told what they ought to be told.

Restricted information channels

Restricted communication channels have a negative effect on the business’s capacity to be agile. Employees need exposure to more and varying types of information to know with confidence when, how, and why they need to be adaptive, flexible, and customer-focused. Even though knowledge workers have access to more information than employees 100 years ago, I would suggest it’s still not enough to perform with optimum agility.

Employers need employees who:

  •      are willing to flexibly deploy their skills-set;
  •      are customer and performance-focused;
  •      are keen to work in project-based teams when needed; and
  •      feel engaged, committed, and open to growing and developing

But many of the antiquated performance management practices enduring from scientific management foster the opposite characteristics.

Specifically, the principles of scientific management encourage employees to:

  •      specialise rather than deploy their skills-set;
  •      have an internal and job-focus rather than a customer and performance-focus;
  •      be more functionally-based than project-based;
  •      be merely satisfied, rather than engaged with their job;
  •      display loyalty but not necessarily believe it; and
  •      be technically-trained and ignore their non-technical development.

Scientific management encourages closed rather than open channels of communication; yet another impediment to agility.

Productive knowledge workers

When it comes to information, the productive knowledge worker wants and needs:

  •      the opportunity to work in a variety of work-settings;
  •      to be equipped with the necessary information, skills, and incentives to focus on the customer;
  •      to be recognised for good performance;
  •      to contribute constructively to cross-functional projects;
  •      to undertake meaningful work;
  •      to exchange their labour and expertize for personal and professional opportunities to growth and development; and
  •      to have access to a wide range of helpful information to act with initiative and autonomy.

These factors are reliant on the communication of information. Employees need access to a wide array of information channels to accomplish the agility requirements in a changing world of work. To not prove adequate information is a far greater risk to a business than the risks associated with sharing information.

This is an extract from Dr Tim Baker’s book, Performance Management for Agile Organizations: Overthrowing the Eight Myths that hold Businesses Back.

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