Information--Too Much or Too Little

A bunch of years ago in grad school I had a professor, Max, who taught a course in Human Behavior in Organizations.  Max would regale us with tales of his experiences in corporate America, and he being an Industrial Psychologist, examples of bizarre encounters with others of which he was either victim or participant.

One of Max's early "professional" jobs was with a major corporation.  As was often custom at that time, Max and his wife were the guests of his new boss and wife to celebrate the new job assignment at a fine dining establishment.  After a round or two (or several) of libations, it became obvious that Max's supervisor was losing the challenge of responsible alcohol consumption to the point that young Max thought it well to remove said boss from the premises in favor of some fresh air.  The boss did rally somewhat with exposure to the new environs while also liberated from inhibitions. He proceeded to share and confess to Max a series of life offences:  alcohol misuse, workplace cheating, marital infidelity, etc.

After surviving this evening, Max settled in to the rigors of the new job.  The relationship with his boss was cordial and professional, however, there was little communication regarding job performance successes and areas of opportunity.

At the conclusion of six months of employment the time arrived for Max to receive his performance evaluation to determine whether he would be retained as an employee.  Bear in mind that again there had been no substantial conversation regarding performance to that point.  The evaluation arrived in a sealed envelope.  Max opened it.  He was stunned to read that a great majority of his ratings cited substandard work and unsatisfactory performance.  Without hesitation he made an appointment with his supervisor to discuss the document.

The response from his manager was to the effect of, "Max, when you began work here I confided in you over some personal information for which I was not and am not proud.  It is extremely difficult for me to work here knowing what you know about me.  You are going to need to leave the company."

Some time after that Max found himself employed in another large organization.  Although workers could not be certain of the source, rumors were flying that earnings for that company were diminishing and reductions in force were a possibility.  As many of us still do to this day, Max retreated with his peers and colleagues to evaluate, analyze, and discuss the scuttlebutt.  The conversations were cathartic; "we feel better having talked it through," they claimed.  Still, there was no definitive news about the rumors.  As tensions continued, Max and his cohorts concluded that their spirits would be lifted with a lunchtime consumption of...spirits.  One martini the first week became two the second, etc. to the degree that afternoons at the company were downright relaxing...mellow.

Representatives from corporate headquarters visited soon and assembled an all staff meeting.  "Many of you may have heard that the company was experiencing a downturn in orders and I'm sure may have had concerns about the security of your jobs," they said.  "Corporate prides itself on communications to branch operations, however, to have released any information on status before today would have been incomplete, inaccurate, and likely resulted in even more confusion.  Although we are facing uncertain times I want to assure everyone that their jobs are safe and that we do not anticipate any layoffs."

These two stories I share offer a couple of lessons, yet are somewhat the antitheses of one another.  First, information is precious and fragile.  We all have an innate desire to "be in the know" and to not feel left out.  In Max's case, however, "he knew too much."  Although he handled what he did know responsibly, it still cost him his job.  Would he have been better off not knowing?  Even when carefully coddled our mere possession of knowledge can expose us and make us vulnerable.

In the second example, the employees anticipated the worst.  Yet if the information about the status of the company had been released earlier before it was complete it could have resulted in far more chaos.  How often do we react on the basis of incomplete data?  I am reminded that where practical, get as much information as possible first and in instances where it is not available consider lesson one and perhaps it's just as well that "you don't know."  Sort of like in marriage, the wise words of Benjamin Franklin still reign true, "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterwards."

I read that Max passed a while back.  Though he's left this life, I trust that he's looking down and honored that his stories and their lessons live on through the memory of at least one obscure student.  Thank you sir.

The Seed Sower

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