The inner circle is killing organizations.
The inner circle is not necessarily a group of people as we typically think of it, although it often does manifest as leaders of a certain level in an organization. It is more the idea that information and power must live at the top of the organization, and has to be hoarded, protected and carefully distributed.
It’s doesn’t just impact how work gets done, it affects how people feel valued at work and, in return, the level of effort, care and loyalty they put into their day to day jobs. Followed by issues of low retention and high turnover - you get it, it’s a cycle.
Both in my leadership coaching and change management consulting, I continuously see the inner circle affecting organizations. I was recently interviewing several directors to get a sense for how they were feeling about an upcoming change. In each conversation, I couldn’t get an answer; and each time it was for the same reason: their leaders hadn’t told them what was changing. I couldn’t understand why this information had not been communicated, even just one layer down from the top. The answers were available, but the information wasn’t making its way to the people who needed it the most to help make things happen.
Why does this happen?
There are several reasons inner circles form, but it almost always comes down to an individual’s feelings and personal decisions.
- You crave a sense of authority. Information is power and power feels good. As leaders and managers, you often do need to be privy to information before others -- but that should put you in a position to help others through the change or experience, not limit their awareness. Use this power to your advantage to support people, rather than keeping the information to yourself because it feels good.
- Sharing information involves a level of thoughtfulness. Sometimes when you have information you simply don’t realize that others don’t. It’s like how a teacher has to slow down to teach children something step by step, even though it comes quickly and naturally to them. It takes a certain level of thoughtfulness to recognize when others need to be brought in, and then do something to bring them into the loop.
- You’re not confident in answering the questions that may follow. This is the most common reason I see, and it’s understandable. Leaders don’t want to look like they don’t know what’s going on, when maybe they don’t. But that’s ok! Your team will appreciate more that you shared what you do know. They will still respect you if you don’t have the answers, especially if you commit to finding them or working together to get to a solution. In fact, your team will likely have some of the best ideas and you should invite, nurture and reward that kind of collaboration - not be intimidated or threatened by it.
How can you as a leader help fix it?
It is possible to shift this dynamic in organizations, even if the culture feels pretty well-baked. Culture comes down to individuals’ actions collectively creating an accepted way of working. Here are 3 bold but easy things you can do to break up the inner circle.
- Ask someone: What information do you not have that would help you? One question, it’s that simple. It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers, one rarely does. Showing some truth and vulnerability will only expose that you’re human (see #3 above). Make a point to ask your team what gaps they’re feeling or what they need to feel more informed or in-the-know. Let them know that you’re making a concerted effort to share more where you can, but first you have to know where they’re feeling a lack of clarity.
- Invite someone to your “inner circle” meeting. I can almost promise you won’t get fired and you’ll make someone’s day. (Side note - of course you should give the meeting attendees a heads up. Surprising your colleagues isn’t the point). The idea is to be thoughtful about who could benefit from and contribute to the conversation, and that person is often someone on your team. These are also valuable developmental opportunities that are so important for individuals’ learning and self-confidence, not to mention building trust and transparency in the organization.
- Take a collaborative versus territorial approach to leadership. If leaders and managers take on a true teamwork mentality, then the workplace will be more inclusive and productive. Leaning on your team to find or create solutions to challenges doesn’t mean you’re a bad or incapable leader, it means you are collaborative and not too proud to show if you don’t know it all (who does know it all, anyway?). People respect and want to work for managers like that. A simple mindset shift like this - and behaviors that support it - will shape what kind of leader you are and the level of dedication of those around you. True leadership is about enabling and paving the way for others, and that can be harder than just doing it all yourself. One of my clients, a Change Management leader, genuinely says to her team: “Here’s what I know, but I don’t have all the answers. What do you think? How can you help us figure it out?”. That kind of openness can shift the conversation, the team's work and the overall culture.
Of course there are situations where sensitive, confidential information must be treated and shared carefully, and those matters should be handled as such. But the bulk of work that needs to get done in the workplace on a daily basis is better done collaboratively.
Wherever you sit in the organization, what can you do to break down, or break into, the inner circle?
Can you share more?
Can you be more curious?
Can you influence others to do the same?