How to share just enough information

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Donald Rumsfeld shakes hands with US Army soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade while on a visit to Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq. Photo from US Army Africa.

There are known knowns…

On February 12th 2002, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood in front of journalists and the media at another U.S. Department of Defense news briefing.

Facing another probing question about the lack of evidence to link the Iraqi government with the provision of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld began his reply, with little idea that he was about to coin the phrase that he would be remembered by.

“…because as we know, 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 – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

I remember watching the briefing on BBC News. My initial reaction was that Rumsfeld had said something tautological and utterly ridiculous, but, in retrospect, it has been labelled a smart distillation of complex matters. I think I now agree.

Although the public would declare this phrase as a Rumsfeld creation, the evidence points to it being previously used inside NASA, of which Rumsfeld likely heard a variant of when he worked on the assessment of ballistic missile threats to the U.S. in partnership with William Graham, an administrator at the space agency.

At the time of the “known knowns” phrase, Rumsfeld found himself in a difficult professional situation that can become more acute with increased levels of seniority. Generally, the more senior that an individual is in an organization, the more access that they have to sensitive information, and the more careful they have to be about how it is handled and shared.

The individual’s experience is what allows them to understand, reason and vet sensitive information to ensure that confidentiality is not broken. It is their experience that means that when it is time to deliver that information to others, that it is done in a way that respects the owners of the information, the information itself, and those that want to know more.

If you are a manager, or a senior member of staff in general, then you are aware of the inherent messiness of information when the filters to the rest of the company are removed.

The key is to work out the best way to reason and make decisions with that information, including others as much as you can to ensure enough democracy, without letting those who are less experienced at dealing with it becoming distracted, worried or panicked.

Delivering bad news

Medical professionals know the dilemma of sharing sensitive information far too well. When communicating with their patients, trust is established through openness and honesty. If a patient has been diagnosed with a fatal illness, then the delivery of that information must be done transparently, sensitively and kindly.

This requires a great deal of knowledge and understanding on the part of the physician, both in terms of how to summarize and present the information, but equally importantly, how to deliver it in a humane way with empathy and candor. Ethics are also important to consider, as the physician must also understand how to handle delicate situational intricacies.

For example, consider how fatality policy in hospitals requires the next of kin to perform the initial identification of the deceased. This may mean that a close relation may be refused to see the deceased until the next of kin has done so. How do you feel about the ethics of that situation?

Furthermore, is it wrong to withhold the specifics of a diagnosis, even when it isn’t life threatening, from someone who is suffering from serious mental health problems and therefore could be exposed to more risk as a result of knowing the truth? What if there is no concrete reason to withhold information of a diagnosis, but instead their family is requesting it be kept secret from them?

Let’s just say that I’m glad I’m in software.

Should you just say nothing?

As a senior professional in any industry, you are required to make regular decisions about how much you should share with other staff and when.

The easiest option with any sensitive subject is to not say anything at all. But is keeping everything a secret by default the right thing to do?

One only has to search the Internet for “is withholding information bad?” to stumble across a wealth of articles and questions wondering whether withholding information is tantamount to lying. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

However, the consensus is similar to what is presented in the case of the physician above; that unless there is a critical reason for hiding information, then it should be shared, although care should be taken in how the message is delivered.

In technology, we have seen books such as Radical Candor advocating for more transparent and candid relationships. There has also been a shift towards more extreme openness in workplace culture such as Buffer’s public salary list. We would be right to assume that as a workforce, and as a society, we want as little information hidden from us as is necessary, given how easy it is to share and access it.

It’s also worth noting the shift in medicine away from withholding information: in a survey in 1961, 10% of physicians believed it was correct to tell a patient the exact details of a fatal cancer diagnosis, a percentage which had changed to 97% by 1979. More recently, the NHS is considering trials of genomic tests to predict your likelihood of fatal illness in the future.

We want openness.

Even the perceived semantics of words that describe withholding information have negative connotations. Consider the words censorship, or stonewall, filibuster or even hide. What about the phrase suffer in silence?

We want to live in a transparent society, and we don’t want to hide information from our staff unless absolutely necessary. But how can we do that whilst still respecting that not every detail can be shared?

Getting the balance right

As we touched on previously, as the seniority of a role increases, so does the exposure to sensitive information. But what sort of sensitive information are we talking about?

My current role has me informed a long time before the rest of the company on a number of sensitive topics because I am often working on them.

  • Mergers and acquisitions: I’ve contributed to, and have ran, technical due diligence on companies that we have acquired and many companies that we didn’t end up acquiring. Since many deals don’t work out, talking about them widely creates gossip and distraction, so confidentiality is key. Sometimes it’s really hard to keep information secret because it’s exciting: I was working on Brandwatch’s merger with Crimson Hexagon at least 6 months before it actually happened, and you need to live with the possibility of many parallel futures.
  • Redundancies and performance issues: During times in the company’s history that have been financially challenging, I’ve been part of planning for redundancy rounds. This is information you absolutely do not want to leak. Additionally, staff who are not performing well need to be treated with respect so both they and I can mutually decide what the best course of action is, so they have the chance to improve, or to exit on good terms.
  • Compensation: This goes without saying. When you help decide pay rises and promotions, sensitivity is vital.

This is a privileged set of information, and it is my duty to ensure that it is treated with the utmost respect. If I require assistance from others, then I only call upon those that I trust absolutely.

But this sensitive information is only a small subset of what I am exposed to. There’s plenty of work that benefits from being done openly, and I’m sure the same is true with your company.

But how can you work out what to share?

Consistently just enough sharing

When I think about it, I try to divide information into the following three buckets:

  • Completely confidential: Aside from those that have been given authority to know, nobody else should. M&A and redundancies fall into this category.
  • Closed box: The process or concept isn’t sensitive, but the contents are. For example, people will know that pay reviews are being done, but the exact details are sensitive until finalized.
  • Open box: This information isn’t sensitive at all, such as what engineering projects I’m working on and how they are progressing.

I find that there are two important things to ensure harmony with staff:

  1. That the company is consistent with how it treats information in those categories.
  2. That the company broadcasts just enough information.

Even though these two principles are straightforward, it’s surprising how easily they go wrong, and very rarely through malice. (Yet, if alcohol was illegal, it would make it much easier to keep a lid on it.)

Consistency

Even if your company agrees on how the information should be classified as above, it means nothing unless that is consistently applied by everyone that knows it.

This problem compounds in companies with a large HQ office with a multitude of satellites: consistency of sharing should be applied regardless of whether staff are physically present in HQ, and regardless of how close friendships may be with those with the most knowledge.

It’s difficult enough for remote staff in feeling far from the central hub of a company, so ensure that it isn’t made harder by making those staff the last to know through idle chat.

Think about what you’re sharing to people in passing. Would it be better off as an email broadcast to all offices? Perhaps as a regular all-hands Q&A meeting? Timely updates on Slack? It’s more effort and you may feel like you are repeating yourself, but in my experience with dealing with remote teams, it’s essential.

Spending that extra time writing information up is a lot less painful than having an office feel that they haven’t been consulted on a big issue.

Sharing just enough

The definition of just enough is straightforward for two of the three information categories. Completely confidential information should be just that. Open box information should be broadcast as much as is useful for everyone’s knowledge.

The trick is getting the closed box category right. My own take is that the existence of closed box information should be broadcast as much as is useful for everyone’s knowledge, except that the details are not disclosed.

Many people default to closed box information being treated as confidential, but this can be perceived negatively. For example, if the pay review process is underway, why not regularly update everyone that it is progressing, even if there is no set date on it finishing? Surely that isn’t a secret.

Likewise, if the company is investigating raising another round of funding, why not say so, even if the details are confidential? People appreciate being kept in the loop of what is going on outside of their teams, and what the future may hold.

Keeping silent in situations where instead just enough information can be shared can make staff feel as if there’s a reason that you’re not talking about it. Often, after rumor and gossip, that reason can become negative (e.g. “they’re not doing pay reviews!”) when the real reason can be quite positive (e.g. more time and money is being spent on competitive benchmarking).

In summary

In the absence of information, people tend to assume the worst. So try not to let that information be absent in the first place. Classify the information that you hold, and make sure that you share just enough of it so that staff feel included and well-informed.

If you don’t, your known unknowns might be linked to weapons of mass destruction, and we all know how that turned out.

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