[There] are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.
Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense of the United States of America
Do you follow Rumsfeld's logic?
Yeah, me neither.
But I do know that not knowing what people are thinking in an organization can cause serious problems for managers.
Newsflash: social media on its own can not make bosses liked by employees without other factors coming into play. By the way, I say this as a guy who is totally in love with social media (as if you couldn't tell!). I just think that face-to-face contact can never fully be replaced by social media or emails.
Knowing what other people know in the organization is facilitated not only by understanding the formal structure of the organization, but also knowing the underlying informal networks. These are the relationships that naturally develop between people, which although important, are not going to be found on your typical organizational chart.
Before tapping into these informal networks, employers need to get something straight: snooping on employees or trying to get their social media passwords is not only unethical, it will only backfire by making employees more resentful. Resentful employees tend to do unpleasant things like anonymously bash their workplace online. Once word gets out, hiring talent becomes a LOT tougher.
All relationships are underpinned to some degree by trust. Understanding how people trust each other comes first, followed distantly by social media. You don't even have to be interested in social media to see that understanding how trust works in organizations has a direct impact on company performance. Let me explain.
Formal structures on their own are important to establishing authority and responsibility. However, the underlying informal networks are far more important, I believe. A manager may be able to exert power over others by way of the formal structure, but he or she will not be able to know and influence others without having their trust. Trust is a "fuzzy" concept, but one that is immensely important in terms of how employees actually will work with one another.
Managers cannot hope to know what is happening without understanding organizational relationships, but unfortunately because they cannot be everywhere they are often left to draw conclusions based on superficial observations. Such an approach can have myriad consequences. By not understanding the way people actually operate, managers may put people in positions of power who have little real influence over personnel.
Employees may choose to build or break alliances on tacitly and explicitly agreed upon choices, at least in the absence of the manager. Employees untrained in technology they perceive as foisted upon them may seek to hinder the manager’s initiatives. At worst this may undermine the organization’s production and completely devastate morale. Managers perceived as being out of touch are not generally well respected.
I think that there are a number of things that managers can do to know what other people know in the organization. Raising awareness should not be viewed as unimportant by managers used to dealing with hard information, rather than fuzzy concepts, such as trust, but be treated as an integral part of making the organization run more efficiently.
The first is to not stifle debate or discussion. An environment in which speaking out is stifled will only force the discourse elsewhere, where it cannot be as easily influenced or followed. An example of such a work place is Microsoft, which encourages criticism so long as it is not personal. Such discourse can be facilitated by strategies that range from complex, such as the use of exclusive social media forums for company personnel, as is the case with General Electric, which has its own social media network for employees, to simple, as is the case with thousands of small businesses around the world that hold meetings where employees are encouraged to speak out.
Companies that do choose to build employee only social media networks tend to have better morale and loyalty than companies that do not. This doesn't have to be an expensive system. Even a list serv or simple closed group on Facebook can serve this purpose.
Secondly, managers should take time to get to know their employees and instill a sense of pride in their role. Employees who feel valued within the organization by their manager are more likely to report what is happening out of loyalty. Google encourages this feeling of loyalty by proclaiming itself to have a revolutionary culture that says “don’t be evil”.
Third, managers should initiate 360 degree anonymous evaluations for employees engineered to measure trust and other positive factors. These can be graded for trust and should be understood by employees as being part of making the company better, not for the purpose of promotions and demotions. Armed with such data, managers should begin shifting their attention from advice networks to trust networks, which are more representative of the underlying state of the organization, and building advice networks to reflect this reality accordingly.
These are a few ideas I have. I’m looking forward to hearing my classmates discuss this topic in class tomorrow (Managing Info and Innovation), and am sure I’ll be learning some new things I’ve never thought of.
I know I can trust them to keep pushing me to learn more.
Aatif Bokhari's LinkedIn profile can be found here.