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April 15, 2009

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My reaction is that there are a few key sentences in this passage:

"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...

Every social order in history which has been built on the foundation of such an idea has collapsed because its foundation refused to remain stable very long."

Any organization or group that seeks to function as a dictatorship - even a benevolent one - will eventually fall on it's face because human nature rebels against "because I know better" or, in it's worst incarnation: "because I said so".

The point about the fact that many things, including the realities of a business, can be learned is also pertinent. The issue for many "leaders" is that teaching workers about the business is time-consuming and involved, and in the current environment of "What's the cost/benefit analysis?" they don't see sufficient benefit to themselves for make that investment. If anything, many of these (in effect) benevolent dictators see a resulting detriment to themselves and their authority in the workers becoming well-versed in how the business runs because that might lead to workers questioning the decisions being made.

Yes, Kristen, I'm eager to see if Mr. Heron addresses the time issue. For it IS time-consuming to teach employees about the business (and cumbersome to answer the increasingly intelligent and nettlesome questions that result).

But by the same token, the typical current cost/benefit analysis is based on quarterly earnings, a system by which organizations will NEVER be responsibly or successfully run.

I've always argued that if businesses thought 12 or 24 years ahead instead of 12 or 24 weeks. Big problem in the U.S.A., where the A stands for ADHD.

Well, there are some more progressive companies out there (admittedly, they are the exception rather than the rule) who also include employee satisfaction/engagement ratings, which can be quantified, in their cost/benefit planning. After all, as any HR manager will tell you it is about three times more expensive to hire and train a new employee than it is to retain the ones you have.

Unfortunately, the current economic challenges have taken us back to an employer's market rather than an employee market, and I fear that, at least in the near term this will minimize the incentive for considering employee satisfaction as an important measure of a business's fiscal health, simply because there are so many employees vying for fewer jobs, so there will be no pressing need for employers to pay attention to that.

I hope that when the economy improves the pendulum will swing back the other way, but unfortunately, that may take a while.

So I've been following this series with interest, David, but there's been something bugging me that I couldn't put my finger on until today. Does Heron at any point discuss the other side of the equation - the employee's role in the communications relationship?

I agree with the core idea here that employers need to have a different attitude about their employees, what they bring to the organization, and the respect and openness they deserve. But at the same time, isn't there a responsibility on the employees' part to be open to that relationship and contribute in a meaingingful way to what should be a genuine dialogue?

Often when employers try to make the shift to be the kind of more progressive orgs that Kristen talks about, they are met with cynicism and mistrust by their employees. That's not suprising - it's a natural legacy of the neglect and misguided attitudes Heron describes and that remain all too common. It is a big part of the communicator's role to help rebuild that trust and establish a more positive relationship (something I'd say we're in the midst of in my organization, with some success so far).

But is there not some reasonable expectation that at some point employees will get past the "what's in it for me" attitude and also start seeing themselves in the broader context if the employer is willing to see their obligations in the same perspective? If the employer is willing to invest the time to teach the employee about the business, doesn't the employee also need to be willing to invest the time to learn? Of course employees have the capacity to learn about the business. But as in any education, employees also need to make a conscious choice to learn. And maybe it's okay if the choose not to, as long as the opportunity is there. But, in a sense, for an employer to think "If we teach, they will learn" is just as patronizing as assuming employees wouldn't understand.

I'm certainly not trying to absolve the employer of their larger share of responsibility in all this. Like I said, employee attitudes are often a legacy of their past treatment by their employer. Heron's general argument does indeed hold water as much today as it did in his time (if not more so). But the employer-employee relationship is a true relationship that can't be defined by one side or the other alone. So I'm hoping he gets to discussing that other side at some point.

Rueben, I'm hoping he gets around to it too. (I'm posting these only about a chapter behind the pace at which I'm reading them.)

To your point:

"But is there not some reasonable expectation that at some point employees will get past the 'what's in it for me' attitude and also start seeing themselves in the broader context if the employer is willing to see their obligations in the same perspective?"

Agreed, but with only one caveat. The employer has to be the one to stick the neck out first and the employer has to do it dramatically. And even still, the employer oughtn't be surprised that, after all these years of being told (and shown) they ought to look out for number one, employees don't leap at management's first, second or even third overture.

Culture change takes time, because trust takes time--and often some attrition, on the part of employees and management--in order to develop.

Agree?

Absolutely agree, David. The employer needs to lead the way and needs to stick with it. We've been at it for three years with my organization and I'd say we're really only beginning to see a shift in employee attitudes.

And what does that shift look like to you? How can you tell it's beginning to happen?

(And: Does it feel tenuous?)

Reuben: yes, tell us how you are seeing this happen in the "real world"? This sounds like a case study to me!

P.S. While I agree 100% with you about employees having a responsibility to participate in this process actively and fully, I do feel compelled to point out that the title of the book is "Sharing information with Employees" so I don't want you to be too disappointed if Heron doesn't discuss the employee's part in all this!

I could point to things like two consecutive years of improvements in our employee engagement score as evidence that change is beginning to take hold. And that probably is valid, particularly for those who like to measure. But I think the most compelling evidence for me is in the response we see from employees through direct channels like our intranet comments page and a new tool we have that is similar to Dell's Idea Storm, where employees can suggest ideas for how we improve as an organization and then discuss those ideas among the online employee community.

I'm seeing two trends over time in these areas that intrigue me. First, we get a lot more employee feedback and comments on almost anything we do than we did a couple years ago. Initially, the response was often reserved and I think that reflected a general suspicion of the direction we were taking and a certain fear of speaking out - even in support of changes.

The second trend is that the feedback we receive is not always supportive - in fact it is often critical. I actually see that as a really positive thing because employees seem to be increasingly believing that it is okay to share their honest thoughts. Just as importantly, it seems to be moving toward a more constructive dialogue rather than just general selfish complaining. Not that there aren't still lots of complaints and unrealistic demands, but the balance seems to be shifting.

I think this is the result of an active and persistent effort to convince employees that they have a voice and that it will be listended to. Doesn't mean we'll always do what they ask, but we're prepared to at least open the discussion. And we're up front about the fact that we aren't looking to improve as an employer just because it's "the right thing to do" but also because we know that their engagement has a direct impact on our ability to meet our business requirements.

I don't know that we're far enough along to be a case study yet. It's all part of a much broader cultural shift for us and the road behind is still much shorter than the road ahead. It definitely does still feel tenuous - particularly as we, like everyone else, work through the current economic/fiscal situation. But the trust is increasingly being built in large part because we have an executive that gets that this kind of change doesn't come from the executive alone but from across the organization - that if you give employees a role and a voice in making change, many of them will take that on and be empowered by it. The next year or two will likely test both the employer's and employees' resolve in terms of whether or not we are all ready to make the kind of change we really need to make. But, as intangible as it may be, it feels like the foundation is there.

Very interesting, Reuben. Please keep us posted.

This sounds exciting and inspiring Reuben - Congratulations! Looking forward to hearing future updates on your progress.

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