Hidden Communication

“Let me tell you how things REALLY get done around here.”

How many times have you heard that?

One question I have often heard is, “if the way we REALLY do things works so well, shouldn’t we make that our official way of doing business?”

Well…yes and no.

Organizations have processes within them that are not covered by any policy. Often referred to as “hidden communications,” these are ways of conducting business that are not necessarily visible to an outsider because they are not written down anywhere. Sometimes they are used to help get the job done, and sometimes they are used by individuals focused on their own agenda. One of those is good, one of those isn’t, but as with many things you often have to take the good with the bad.

One advantage to these unofficial ways of doing business is that they give you a mix of flexibility and accountability in different situations, something that is very hard to write into policy. Your official business processes provide accountability, by stating who’s responsible for what, and they tell you how things should work normally. Since you cannot plan for every situation, your “hidden communications” can provide a way to get something done when things aren’t normal. Knowing that your employees will take the initiative to find solutions and get the job done when exceptions to the rule occur allows you to feel comfortable that what needs to get done will actually get done.

So why even bother with a normal way of doing business? Why not just let people use their initiative all the time? Well, it helps to know how to do something the “right” way before you can know when there are exceptions to those rules. If you understand how to do things according to policy, and you can recognize when the situation requires something other than the standard way of doing business, then you’re in a better position to pick the best course of action. If you don’t know how to do it right, then how can you tell when “right” isn’t the right way to do it?

Another reason you should expect people to add their own spin on your processes: you are dealing with humans, and humans have egos. Sometimes you just need to let them do what they need to do. I remember getting reimbursed for travel when I was in the military. I knew that when I took my paperwork to the finance office after an unusual trip I would probably have to sit through a few minutes of the finance person griping about how difficult their job is, and then I’d get my money. Nowhere in the finance regulations did it say “let the finance person complain about their job for 5 minutes,” but I knew that was just part of the process. (I also knew that if I ever said, “please shut up and do your job,” I’d probably be setting myself up for a “random” audit and delayed reimbursement, and I didn’t need that). Sometimes you have to just let people be people, whether it’s protecting their “turf” or pumping up their egos, and as long as the work gets done, you just accept it as part of the way things work.

That last point is really critical: “as long as the work gets done.” If people are going around the rules just to help themselves or to get out of work, then that’s no good, and you should certainly feel free to step in and put a stop to that. You cannot stop all bad behavior — some things will be hidden even from you — but you can make it clear that when people try to do things their own way, their focus needs to be on what’s good for the organization, not just on what’s good for them.