The Cult of Knowing

Early in my career, I attended a leadership class that focused on recognition. The thing that stuck with me is that we naively assume people want to be recognized by money and authority, and that is not true for the majority of people. The class had us reflect on the different ways we’d want to be recognized. You can be recognized by being given increasingly challenging problems to solve. You can get excited about having more autonomy to solve a problem. You can feel appreciated by getting the opportunity to share what you learn with others. You can be given public recognition for your efforts.

It’s not a bad thing to want to be recognized[1], and recognition is something that works best when personalized[2].

Something I had never considered before that class was that some people want to be recognized by being in the know. They feel appreciated when they feel they have transparent leadership. They feel recognized when they have information when others have it. That’s not a bad thing. It should be relatively inexpensive and easy form of recognition to provide in a transparent company.

What if the company is not transparent? What if knowledge becomes a political currency in the organization? You’ll see the rise of knowledge cliques. There will seem to be groups of people that know things — the inner circles. A friend of mine, who is a former English teacher, calls this the “cult of knowing.” How do you know if the cult of knowing is happening in your organization? Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you find that you have to leverage the grapevine to discover context?
  • Are you told not to share context with others you feel would benefit from it?
  • Is it hard to reason about who knows what, when, and why?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, it may be worthwhile to honor Hanlon’s Razor, “Don’t assume malice for can easily be explained through incompetence.” It could mean your organization is bad at communication. I once worked for an organization that was so bad at communication, they sent out an email announcing an reorganization to employees with the line, “If you have any questions about this change, discuss it with your manager.” The problem was the only communication to the managers had been that same email, nothing else. They had no means to answer any questions their employees would have.

There’s good news for small, colocated organizations. They don’t have to work hard to be good at communication. They can communicate via a series of incidental interactions: hallway chats, people popping by each others’ desks, and casual conversations in the spaces outside meetings. Small, colocated organizations can manage through proximity. They can just sit near each other and share the right information just in time.

The same tricks don’t work for large organizations. Large organizations have to be intentional about communication. They have to identify audiences. They have to understand how those audiences should receive information. They have to send the same message through multiple channels. My English teacher friend says, “This is why no one airs a commercial just once.”

However, this competent and intentional approach to communication is what often leads to a cult of knowing. The people planning the communication have the knowledge. They don’t know what it feels like not to be in the know. On top of that, it is their job to decide who knows what, when, and how. Once that’s their job, they take it seriously. They make careful decisions. They control the flow of information. With that serious care and control, comes a loss of transparency.

I started this blog talking about recognition. The loss of transparency through the rise of the cult of knowing doesn’t just hurt your ability to make people feel appreciated. It hurts your organization’s ability to act fast at lower levels of the company. When people are missing context, whether through organizational incompetence, bureaucracy, or malice, they either make bad decisions or stop making them altogether. Then you cease to have a reason to recognize them.

[1] I’ve heard some people claim wanting credit or recognition for your contributions is a bad thing. I think that stance fundamentally ignores a basic human need for appreciation. Not giving others credit or showing appreciation for their work is what I would consider the dysfunctional behavior.

[2] In case you are curious, I prefer recognition to be in the form of increasingly challenging problems for which I get a bare bones “Thank you” from leadership for solving.

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