The U.S. Department of Homeland Security adjusts the security alert status from code yellow to code orange. The change is announced on national television news networks. You immediately launch your orange alert status program – or, do you? More likely, you’ll do what almost everyone else does when the alert status changes – nothing. You will probably do nothing different than what you were going to do anyway. Why then, if the government has alerted you to an increased security threat would you choose to ignore it? The answer could be that you have too little information to act on.

When these alerts were first issued, I suspect that the action people took was to be more attentive to their television sets. They had no information to act on so they waited to see if something happened during the heightened state of alertness. Then ultimately as people became numb to the announcements, they were simply ignored. That’s hardly what was intended, but then there does not seem to be a good alternative. What information could they tell you that would be relevant to you specifically to enable you to make a decision or take any particular course of action? It’s difficult to imagine how they could possibly produce and communicate information specific to a small enough group of individuals. That group would not even be qualified to take any appropriate action if required to do so.

As a business leader, you may rely on an executive dashboard to track and report on various key indicators of operational performance. When one of the dials or gauges enters a red zone, you have access to information and potentially a host of analyst experts to tell you what it means. Then you can take purposeful and meaningful corrective action. Let’s say that one of the indicators you monitor is the cost of technical support services. For some reason this month there was a huge spike in the cost of providing that service.

Then you send out a high alert to the entire company that the cost of technical support service has entered a red zone. No other information is shared, just the red zone alert. What do you expect would happen? Most likely, this will either create chaos and panic, or they too will simply ignore it. If you repeat this behavior, the organization at large will become demoralized. This is the result of the continued blasting with alarming and threatening news while they remain powerless to do anything about it.

Transparency in communication requires a delicate balance between three key needs. They are the need to disclose the facts and the reality of each situation, the need to protect private information, and the need to generate appropriate action and behavioral response. As we have seen previously, saying too little can be very dangerous. The same might be said for saying too much. Too much information opens up more opportunities for misinterpretation as people search for relevant and actionable information to them. There is also a risk that some seemingly meaningless item of information may be blown out of proportion.

The key is to communicate enough information that is relevant to the audience in order to clarify the situation and support the desired response. This is not the same as creating corporate “spin”. Spin is primarily a defensive mechanism by communicating as little as possible. The goal there is to protect the company from things like inadvertent disclosure, misinterpretations and so on. Information without the appropriate context has the potential to be misunderstood, or ignored, or even mistrusted.

How important is context, or relevance? Think about this quote from Dr Carl Sagan, “It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English - up to fifty words used in correct context - no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.” Did the dolphins really learn English or were they trained associate certain sounds with specific meanings? As they responded to commands, do they also demonstrate an ability to respond in English? Most likely, the answer to that is “no”.

We have successfully demonstrated the ability of dolphins to interpret our communication in a context we create for them. Impressive, but we have not demonstrated any ability to communicate with dolphins in a context in which they operate on their own. Perhaps they communicate in ways and using concepts that are more sophisticated than individual words. We just don’t know, and as long as we force them to operate only in our context, howw will we find out what their real potential is?

As a business leader you are in the fortunate position in that your employees are all human beings. They have language skills very similar to your own, and they already work in the context of your business and your industry. Communicating with them in a context they can understand should be a lot easier. That context should be pertinent to the issue, to the vision of your business, to your employees, and to the business outcome you desire. The nature, amount, and timeliness of information you communicate should consider all of these factors.

Stephen Covey said, “Priority is a function of context”. Calling the fire department to put out a fire while you lie on the beach might be the wrong priority at the wrong place and time. You know there is a fire somewhere, so why not call the fire department just in case it is near you. That would be totally out of context and a huge waste of resources. On the other hand, if you are on the 30th floor of a hotel and you notice your room curtains going up in flames, then calling the fire department and making your way to the ground quickly is a high priority. That would be highly contextual, urgent, and appropriate action.

You want your organization to take the correct action with the appropriate level of urgency and importance. To do this you must learn to communicate with them in the right context. Then they will align their priorities with yours and get to work. “Spin” leads you to conspiracy thinking and fear. Too little information leads to apathy and no action. Too much information creates confusion and chaos. This is a potentially large drain on resources as your organization focuses on putting out fires that don’t exist or matter. The right information in the right context at the right time leads to productive engagement. Effective leaders know that while the choice seems easy the process may be difficult – and they work hard to do it the right way.

Author's Bio: 

Patrick Smyth is a leadership navigator and advisor to leaders of high growth and emerging businesses. He
creates compelling visions and comprehensive strategic plans, and coaches on effective leadership and
management practices. He is a recognised speaker, trainer, coach, and international business strategist and
author of the book Elephant Walk: Balancing Business Performance and Brand Strategy for the Long Haul.