I know, I know: This is the fifth installment of our study of Sharing Information with Employees, Alexander Heron's 1942 book, the first ever written on employee communication—and we're still not talking about what kind of information Heron expects us to share with them, or by what means. But I think we're going to find those chapters easier to breeze through, and in a few cases I've seen in a sneak peek, laughably antiquated. I promise, get into all of that in the next installment—but only after we learn Heron's concept of "The Aggressive Willingness to Share." —DM
Heron acknowledges that all management teams are willing to share some information, and many are willing to share lots of information. But their motives for doing so, in most cases, are not sufficiently "aggressive" to affect the kind of "understanding" Heron envisions between management and employees. Most employee information-sharing, he says, is based on one of three inferior types of willingness:
1. The "reluctant" willingness, in which the employer shares information with employees because they'll probably find out about it in the papers anyway or hear about it from union organizers. "All things considered," the reluctant executive communicator reasons, "we should offset these possibilities by giving the information ourselves …." This attitude, however sound, is "negative," Heron says. "It is merely seeking the avoidance of certain undesirable possibilities." Set to the goal of achieving understanding between workers and management, the "reluctant" willingness won't cut the mustard.
2. The "paternalistic" willingness. I won't burden you with any more information than I think you need to to do your job. Even proffered by the most benevolent boss, this policy puts the sharer of information in the position of "carefully selecting for his employees the information which he knows they should have and giving them no other." Needless to say, this philosophy doesn't create a full understanding between employees and management either.
3. The "propagandist" willingness to share information. "With no distortion or falsehood in its technique, it relies on selection and interpretation. Those facts which tend to create favorable reactions are selected to be given to the employees. … In the sense in which favorable facts are selected for this propaganda program, it follows that unfavorable facts are suppressed. Because it aims at a specific and desired employee reaction, such a program must be like a government 'information service,' a combination of the functions of publicity and censorship."
If you're like me, you don't disagree that the above willingnesses leave something to be desired, but you're waiting to see what kind of communication attitude Heron expects from organizations who would foster the understanding he's looking for. He calls it "aggressive willingness," and here's how he describes it:
The aggressive willingness to share information with employees is practical because, honestly and wisely followed through, it will induce a constructive co-operation which cannot be bought or forced.
As far as employee communication goes, that's pretty much the Gettysburg Address, is it not?
And, perhaps like the Gettysburg Address, it's not something all of us really quite believe. I know many, many employee communication practitioners who say they're "passionate" about their work but who do not sincerely believe in the tenets of "aggressive willingness." In fact, I know some to whom these ideas have not ever occurred.
All the time, I hear employee communicators making their best case to management that they might as well tell employees, because employees will find out anyway and "it's better if they hear it from us first."
I know lots of employee communicators who talk a good game but whose real raison d'être in their organizations that they're resident experts on what you can and can't tell employees.
And did you see a few similarities between Heron's "propagandist" willingness and "strategic communicator's" insistence that every word out of the organization's mouth be lashed to a key business goal, targeted at behavior change and measured for ROI?
All people who communicate with employees ought to read Heron's description of "aggressive willingness" and ask:
Is this a creed I will work for? Do I truly believe this, to the extent that I will put forth all the courage, guile, wit and muscle I can muster in order to prove its truth to everyone in my organization?
Ask every day.