Employee Telephone Game

Remember the telephone game from childhood, the one where the first person says something, then whispers it into the ear of the second, and then that person whispers it into the ear of another, and then another whispers it into the ear of another, and so forth? And then, remember what ended up happening to the message after getting passed from one person to another so many times? It often bore little-to-no resemblance to its original form. Could the same thing be happening in corporations?

When one employee amasses knowledge, or comes across new knowledge, how is that knowledge communicated, and what shape is it in after many employees have passed it along?

Companies may have a problem with the transfer of information and knowledge, according to the findings of a newly released survey by speachme. More than 500 full-time employees at companies with 500 or more employees were surveyed, and it was revealed that:

  • 82 percent of employees share important information in person with their colleagues, which means that information is not being formally captured.
  • 68 percent of employees have not been trained by the individual they are replacing.
  • 61 percent of employees have had a colleague leave the company with knowledge or skills that were not documented.
  • Nearly half (47 percent) of employees say they could create better employee training content themselves compared to the training they are provided.

These results suggest more than the need for a trendy internal social network, but, rather, a change of culture.

Is information in your company seen as a competitive advantage? Something to lord over others, and deny to those an employee, or manager, wishes to keep in their place?

One way to find out is to think about how easily you, or one of your employees, can say, “I don’t know,” in response to a question or during a conversation. “Oh, I didn’t know that,” is one of my most common comments during conversations both in work and in my personal life. Second only to “Oh, that’s interesting, I didn’t know that.” In that second case, I’m even showing enjoyment that I didn’t know something and learned something new. When was the last time you said something similar in a free and easy way at your company?

My company isn’t so evolved that it has nurtured this ability to easily admit one is ignorant. Just the opposite—I don’t think I’ve ever heard my boss, or our department head, say anything that would betray a lack of knowledge. Being at peace with my own ignorance just happens to be one of my virtues. Maybe it comes from being such an abominable student until the end of high school. I didn’t grow up with the burden of maintaining the image of an intelligent person. I was expected to be dumb, so it was never hard saying, “I don’t know.” I was just being the ignorant person people expected me to be. So I’m not sure how hard saying “I don’t know” can be for some people, particularly those Type A personalities who have always been perceived as intelligent.

Whether it comes easily to you, or is a virtue you would have to cultivate, the sign of an organization that is strong in information sharing is the ease with which the majority of its employees can admit ignorance. To admit you don’t know something and seek information from another employee, manager, or subordinate requires trust. You have to feel secure that the other person isn’t going to hold what you don’t know against you. That’s in addition to getting past any Type A-always-been-a-smart-person hang-ups against admitting ignorance. Is that level of trust present in your organization?

Along with an easy ability to admit ignorance, an organization’s information-sharing capacity rests on a lack of paranoia. Sometimes there’s a fear that if you share information, it will be overheard by another—maybe another person or department within the company—or an outside competitor. That brings up the question of whether too much information in your company, and within individual departments, is considered proprietary. You don’t want to give your competitors a head start in competing against you, but you also don’t want to set up a communication barrier between employees, departments, and between the company and the public. How much of the information you communicate and receive at the office is considered proprietary, and only to be shared with a select group? What are the disadvantages of keeping the information to such a tight group of people?

Like my penchant for ignorance, I almost never mind sharing information, even with strangers. A host of a morning talk show I was watching last week mentioned how paranoid her father has become when making calls or texting. He’s afraid a Russian hacker will intercept his communications.

Here’s the funny part: I don’t care if a Russian hacker or spy, or member of our country’s Homeland Security department, is listening to my conversations or reading my texts. I’m not so delusional as to think any of it is worth the interest of anyone other than the person I’m communicating it to (and even then it may not be worth that much). I would only be sorry for not knowing of the Russian spy’s presence because I’ve always wanted to talk to a Russian spy. I’d have a million “Oh, that’s interesting, I didn’t know thats” to pass along.

What is the state of information sharing at your company? Do you and your colleagues feel comfortable admitting ignorance, and do you have enough freedom from communication restrictions to share and learn from others?

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