I’d rather know the subway train was ten stops away than not know where it is when it’s closer

February 23, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Leadership

Today’s post is on a management practice of keeping people apprised of information that matters to them. I think it speaks for itself, but I’ll illustrate its meaning by describing why it’s on my mind.

I’d rather know the subway train was ten stops away than not know where it is when it’s closer.

I’m working on a project with a manager who has to deal with some messy bureaucracy that makes knowing important things about the project difficult to forecast. As best I can tell, he sees those challenges as work only he can do, or maybe that he thinks that part of the job is ugly or demoralizing. Whatever his perspective, the result is that he is shouldering the burden himself, in his mind, as best I can tell, doing us a favor, shielding us from problems that he’s handling.

I hope he sees things that way because it would look a lot better than the perspective we have, which is that he seems to be keeping us in the dark about issues that are important to us. If you shield people from information relevant to them, they’ll guess at the information they don’t know and are as likely to fill in the gaps with something that discourages them as encourages them. Actually, my gut tells me people are more likely to discourage themselves filling in the gaps than encourage themselves, since that’s happening now on this project. We just presume the project is out of managerial control.

Last night I caught the subway home late and I experienced today’s topic literally. The train was taking a long time to come. When it did, the express went local, which added time to the trip, and went incredibly slowly, which added yet more time. A trip that normally takes thirty to forty-five minutes took probably double that, maybe more. Few announcements came to explain the problem. Most of the announcements that came were the stock ones we’d come to ignore, like that delays were “due to train traffic ahead of us,” which we couldn’t believe.

The wait and slowness annoyed us, but the lack of information made us dislike the MTA. We’re adults, we felt. We can handle you telling us the problem. If you don’t know the problem, we can handle you telling us you don’t know the problem and at least you’re in the same boat as us. Not sharing that they don’t know looks like they don’t want to be accountable.

I think my manager is leading us to feel the same way about his challenges. We’re adults. If you can’t tell us what you wish you could tell us, tell us what you can. We’d rather know the train is ten stops away than not know where it is when it’s closer. Keep us in the dark leads us to conclude you’re in the dark or don’t want to be accountable.

I described my manager as leading us twice in the last paragraph deliberately. Though I don’t call keeping people in the dark about things effective leadership, he is leading us to our state of low awareness. You can’t stop leading people when you don’t want to when you’re in a leadership position. You’ll still lead them. The question is if you want to lead them deliberately and effectively or just to let things happen and hope for the best.

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