Imagine you’re on an assembly line.

You sit at a conveyor belt that brings boxes in from another room. Your job is to tape the lid down and send them on to the next station.

You don’t know anything about what’s in the box, who’s on the receiving end, or how it’s used. You only know how the tape works, and where you need to put it. That’s all you really need to know to get the job done… right?

That’s an (admittedly oversimplified) example of what we mean when we talk about a “need-to-know” culture. Employees get the information needed to complete their tasks – nothing more, nothing less.

While we have enough information to do the basics, it doesn’t make us care about the larger picture, or motivate us to perform better. How could we, if we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place?

That’s a problem, say the authors of Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. “Hoarding of information is far too persistent in organizations of all kinds,” they write.  “Companies can’t innovate, respond to changing stakeholder needs, or function efficiently unless people have access to relevant, timely, and valid information.”

That’s why Asana, the CIA, emergency responders, and airline crew are adopting a need-to-share culture.

Here’s why you should join them and let your employees peek inside the box.

Transparency matters

Justin Rosenstein, Co-founder of Asana, believes in transparency with context. “Transparency is providing as much information as [an employee] needs to act in the best interest of their team, the company, and its mission as a whole,” he told Fast Company.

The idea is that employees make better decisions when they know what’s happening in three ways:

  • Within their team
  • Across other teams
  • Up and down the leadership chain

Intelligence agencies are shifting from siloed agencies doing their own thing to a more open environment of sharing, particularly on common goals like counterterrorism, says a congressional report. “Information must always be shared with those with a genuine need to know, even if this potential universe is a large one.”

For paramedics, police, and firefighters, it means identifying bottlenecks caused by institutionalized distrust. Preconceived ideas about what “types” of information each team needs can harm responders, victims, and bystanders, according to a 2014 study.

Pilots who seek input from their crew during a simulated accident made better decisions than those who went with their gut, found a NASA experiment. For pilots who sought input, crew were more likely to share information that might save the plane.

Fighting back

It starts with identifying why your need-to-know culture exists in the first place. The underlying motivations range from the innocent (like trying to help employees handle information overload) to the insidious (like hiding mistakes from prying eyes).

Experts point out a few common culprits:

  • Siloed organizations: Teams don’t share with each other because they don’t think their knowledge has outside value, or because they have competing motivations.
  • Distrust: Employees don’t believe others will understand information if they had it, especially in specialized areas.
  • Bad listening: Managers who ignore their employees don’t give them what they need. Employees who think they won’t be heard tend to keep important information to themselves.
  • Corporate politics: Knowledge is power. Being secretive gives those in-the-know control, establishes credibility, and makes them appear indispensable.
  • Technology: “Walled-garden” tech that doesn't connect across systems creates pockets of knowledge that only a few can access.

You can fight back against a need-to-by tackling it like the cultural problem it is.

  • Make sure everyone understands your goals – even if they’re outside your team. Transparency and context are cross-functional priorities, so everyone from Sales to IT needs to talk. Think about common objectives and identify where buried treasure troves of helpful knowledge exist.
  • Make sure everyone in your team knows what they’re working towards. Help your team understand how their work fits into the overall organizational puzzle. Not only is context a huge motivator and performance-booster, but it can also help surface hidden knowledge and bring new ideas to light.
  • Make sure everyone feels good about sharing. Employees who are afraid to speak up are just as bad as leaders who keep teams in the dark. Show them it’s okay to share by opening up about your own successes and mistakes, and soliciting other opinions.
  • Make sure everyone knows how to share. From process to technology, you need infrastructure, too. Let's look at Slack as an example. It captures much of your formal and informal knowledge, while making information easy to find – and use. 

Whatever you do, make sure everyone on your team knows what’s going inside that box – and why.

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