I’ve been having discussions with peers lately on the right mix of information leaders should share with their employees – notably during employee meetings (virtual or face-to-face.) The dialogue was spurred by a recent meeting that featured leaders sharing a range of timely information with the troops: financial updates, progress reports on major programs, an update on the economy…news good and bad was shared and potential elephants in the room (e.g. likelihood of layoffs) were proactively addressed. The format was a blend of slide presentations, informal interplay between presentors and robust Q&A. In short, the meeting was relevant, candid, transparent and reflected – I thought – a real commitment to dialogue and respect for the employees. The content was much more timely and frank than I’ve heard in many company meetings, which are too often highly choreographed affairs with a lot of fluff and contrived cheerleading and not enough facts or honest discussion.

But here’s the catch. Some of the comments from participants at this meeting were negative, with complaints about the complexity of the information, the length of the meeting and the lack of softer, social news.

In the soul-searching that ensued, there was consensus that leaders should always consider the concerns, demographics and interests of their audience – the employees. Most also agreed you needed to blend the hard news with more “human” material focusing on employees and culture. And nobody argued with the reality that presentations and topics should be customized for particular levels and roles. But there was disagreement about whether all employees should be briefed on the nuts and bolts of the business and market, or updated on the financial performance of the company. Won’t this go over the heads of the front-line folks? Do we really need to talk about earnings or stock value? Won’t the employees be bored? Why can’t we focus more on picnics and awards?

From my perspective there is an undercurrent of arrogance and elitism in the argument that employees won’t understand – or can’t be trusted with – the straight goods. I believe employees deserve to be educated and briefed about their company on a regular basis, and that leaders should make two-way communication a personal priority. But it’s two-way street. Just as executives need to be forthright, relevant and responsive, employees have a responsibility – no matter what their level – to have a base level of understanding about their company. If they get restless and squirm for a couple of hours every quarter or so when the CFO’s going over the numbers, that’s a small price to pay for having the chance to hear valuable information and question their leaders in person. Getting valuable information about the company is a hard-fought priviledge that shouldn’t be wasted.

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