Unlocking Organizational Secrets

Ron Jones

Some time ago I undertook a review of the equity and diversity management practices of a large government agency. After two days of initial interviews, including a briefing and formative discussion with the CEO, I commented to my colleague that the agency had a secret – there was an elephant in the room and it was dominating the way in which people responded to us. Staff were clearly disengaged and It was clear to me that unless we could find the "secret" we would not be able to break through and provide advice which would be of lasting benefit to the agency.

In each subsequent interview we asked directly what the secret was – someone had to know what had happened and we needed to find out. During one of these interviews with a senior manager I asked the question and was told there was nothing secret, everything was open and transparent. A few minutes later, during the middle of answering a different question, he suddenly stopped and said "you’re right – we do have a secret. A few months ago we had a sexual harassment allegation against a manager. We dealt with it by arranging transfers to other agencies. So one minute they were here and the next they were gone – and we didn’t tell the staff."

Once we knew "the secret," we were able to reframe the questions we asked of staff and successfully concluded the review. The manager also recognized what had happened and set out to brief key staff on what had happened.

This was an important reminder to us that organizations often have secrets – some issue that needed to be covered up for some reason, usually because the senior staff are embarrassed and afraid to communicate with their staff.

Aligning Internal Communication

If the HR role and internal communication values are not aligned, the consequences for the brand can be severe. All too often, internal reviews of organizations highlight the failure to communicate as the major reason or cause of falling morale, higher turnover and a general feeling of disengagement. Reference is often made to "corridor" or "water cooler" conversations that engender rumors and suspicion and occur largely because of the lack of a proper communication plan. In essence, lack of communication on the part of leaders means they have no trust or respect for their staff.

HR needs to step up and intervene where necessary. Where it allows the absence of effective and open communication, it is contributing to the very outcomes HR is meant to resolve.
HR can play a useful role by promoting the participation of senior managers in "Leadership Crisis Coaching." This is directed at providing a business coaching role that identifies the types of issues the company has faced, or could potentially face, and to then work through the various scenarios as to how these crises should be managed, and the communication strategy required.

The importance of managing a crisis and communicating effectively is important in preventing the organization becoming captive to the secrets and hidden agendas. We should not assume that leaders automatically know how to deal with such situations: in many cases it may be the first time they have been faced with a serious situation that is outside their experience or comfort zone.

HR has a role in ensuring leaders are prepared and able to demonstrate to their staff the level of trust and respect they deserve. Only then will the organization benefit from the approach taken.