Is information sharing a visceral need or a lucky good practice ?

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This is the rest of my Milanese conversation with Mark Masterson. By dint of digressing on Yers we came to tacke the so-called sociability of employees. The idea was to go beyond the idealistic common place according to which “everyone wants to share, to open, to connect and those who refuse to go this way are naughty people” and try to have a more objective standpoint in an enterprise context.

First easy answer : “it depends”. Of course, between those who overshare and those who withdraw into themselves there is a wide range of behaviors due to a tangle of complex factors.

Then : “it’s (as usual) a matter of culture”. Everybody nows agree that in some countries people want a clear separation between their professional and private life and what to belongs to one has not to be known in the other.

Then again : “what makes us say that people share information on the web after all ?”. They share statuses, emotions. They answer their contact, give them some help. Does it mean being “social”, obliging and is it enough to make us deduce that people want to be connected and bring something to their fellow contacts ? No.

If we look at what’s happening on the web, the act of sharing information is rather about “I am” than “I give”. “I am at such place (and you aren’t)”, “I want to talk about my experience”, “I have something to say (most of all I want to be heard”. At the end, sharing looks much more like self-promotion that a will to help and share that seem to be only means to a personal strategy. It’s a little bit like people (some politicians for instance) that are very active on the field for 10 minutes and stop at the minute the TV cameras leave. Should we regret it ? In my opion no, if egos contribute to a common good then Adam Smith was right. But we have to admit this is rather show-off than deliberate sharing.

Quoting a good friend I’d say : that’s ego-altruism.

What does it mean in the workplace ?

Businesses may be quite happy with such behaviors. Only the result matter, not the driver, and if we find normal to incent people with money, a “soft” reward like ego satisfaction can’t be less acceptable. That’s the point where the Invisible hand stops to do its job. The concept of deliberate information sharin in the workplace can be seen from two standpoints :

– I give to help. It’s a typical ego-altruism case and it should work. But a problem comes : giving takes time and I don’t own my time in the workplace as I do in my private life. Someone is paying me to do a defined job and may consider that helping another employee, most of all if we’re not members of the same team, is wasted time. Most of all, drawing attention on oneself, even for good reasons, may be something on can be disapproved of. Rather stay discreet.

– I share to get help. While most of our work is to find answers and solve problems, such an attitude is essentiel. Moreover, it stimulates the production of ego-altruist anwers. But in the workplace and in many cultures that don’t tolerate failure, it means I admit I don’t know how to do something or that I don’t have enough knowledge to do something. Better fail or find a makeshit solution rather than makes things well by sharing a problem.

Let’s also consider the employee personal logics I mentioned here and seem to be everyday more confirmed. People first try to to things alone, if they can’t they expose themselves a little bit and ask their team members, if that’s not enough they ask to their strong ties, then week ties and then only they ask to anybody, to an open community for instance. Consequently nobody exchange, share or collaborate when they think either they can be successful alone or that sharing may be risky.

So, are employees so “social” ? At least, they’re less social internauts. The truth is that employees are internauts that are in a rationalized environment in which they are not the only judges of their own acts but are also judged by their peers and their superior.

That leads to the next question : what is needed to make employees behave like internauts ? Have an approach that is as rational as their engagement.

Anyway, building a strategy on the assuption that sharing and being a part of collective dynamics are parts of employees’ deep nature may lead to some disappointment. Sense and reason are more reliable pillars than good feelings.