Stop Muzzling Important Voices

Muzzlers work on a need-to-know basis -- and think you don't need to know. Here are three ways to root out these cancers and help your business.

Are there “muzzlers” in your company? People who stifle the flow of valuable information or use their influence to create secrecy, increase political advantage or reduce transparency? When valuable and timely information cannot flow freely within and external to an organization, not only is the company’s innovation, collaboration and talent development dampened, but its external relationship ecosystem suffers, as well. What I call “muzzlers” are cancer cells lurking inside your enterprise. Their destructive behavior is almost certainly damaging the brand you’ve worked hard to build. And yet, like a cancer that hasn’t yet manifested symptoms, you may be completely unaware of the danger. Information muzzlers believe information is on a “need to know” basis -- and you don’t need to know. Too many initiatives become massive secrets; too few function as test beds whose results are disseminated in useful ways. I believe information muzzlers are an unintended byproduct of scarce resources. More and more, departments and functions have to compete for resources. This has created an internal competitive force, with jockeying for mindshare and internal wallet share. Scarcity creates a fear-driven culture that causes information muzzlers to multiply. The cost of information muzzling is huge. It prevents collaboration and wastes resources. Worse yet, it inhibits leveraging the collective intelligence of the organization. Like cancer, information-muzzling spreads and begins to affect the entire culture. Just one example: I go to a conference, I learn something really cool, but because we have an information-muzzling culture, I don’t tell anybody anything about it. Now that best practice isn’t documented, shared or spread throughout the company, and the value of sending me to the conference is a tenth of what it might have been. Down this path lies higher operating costs and lost competitive advantage. Influence muzzlers can be just as costly to an organization. Influence is about strategic relationships within a professional network. Any time we’re faced with a challenge or an opportunity, we tend to think about what we should do and how we should do it. We seldom think about who-- who we need, who we know or how we might connect the dots from the relationships we have to the relationships we need. Insurance is typically sold through brokerage firms -- a vast, strategic, relationship network. Yet influence muzzlers don’t see its utility. Who in that network really understands high-net-worth individuals? Who in that network knows exactly how to value priceless artwork? Who in one of these agencies “gets” Millennials and their digital behavior? Making those connections is good for all concerned, but influence muzzlers don’t want to share. Fundamentally, they are undermining the value in the organization’s biggest asset, which is its portfolio of relationships. So far, we’ve talked about inside the organization. But muzzling, of information, influence or both, is just as harmful outside an enterprise. External resources are a huge asset to any organization: the advisers, consultants, coaches, speakers and others who bring cross-industry knowledge and an independent lens. As an outside adviser and a professional speaker, I run across muzzlers when I am engaged by an organization. Their passive-aggressive behavior signals that they want others to think they have more information or influence than they do. As a mentor drove into me years ago, “Real power doesn’t corrupt; powerlessness corrupts!” These people don’t have real power, so they use muzzling instead. Their behavior, whether fueled by lack of self-esteem of self-confidence, or political jockeying, or ambition, comes down to 1980s tactics of information hoarding and Rolodex hiding. They make everyone else’s job more difficult, but that’s just one small aspect of their cancerous qualities. One of the promises I made to myself when I started consulting and speaking professionally more than a decade ago was that I wasn’t going to be a “pull-string” expert for hire -- the kind who takes any stage, you pull the string, and you hear the same canned recommendation or speech over and over again. I prefer to bring a unique, contextually relevant perspective to every engagement. Above and beyond interviewing the CEO or the board who hired me, I dig around to learn more about the real challenges or opportunities within the organization. I reach out through contacts on LinkedIn. I ask for interviews with key leaders down to front-line contributors. I read industry articles or analyst reports. If the firm has physical locations, I may go visit some of them to really understand the customer experience and how the value is delivered. I’m not seeking access to confidential information that should clearly be kept as such, but for inputs that will allow me to integrate the key challenges and opportunities into my content. It’s this kind of outreach that occasionally brings me in contact with an information or influence muzzler. As an independent outsider, I’m in a unique position to see that destructive behavior and call it out. If I encounter one muzzler, it causes me to wonder whether this is actually a cancer that is spreading within this organization. And, crucially, does the CEO or the board know of this person’s behavior? Would they consciously choose a muzzler to be an ambassador of their brand? It makes me ask what other cancerous behaviors are going around this company. If you are a senior leader, the legacy you leave in your organization is in large part the bench you have developed, through your intentional actions. Every time a senior executive moves on, the next generation of leaders steps up. Will an information or influence muzzler get promoted even higher up? If that is the culture you built, it dilutes not only your legacy but endangers the entire organization. You have not just tolerated but encouraged cancer to grow. Consider how we deal with cancer: Either radiation to keep it from growing, or surgery to remove it completely. That’s exactly what you have to do with information or influence muzzlers -- either call them out on their behavior and take explicit steps to fix it, or cut them out. Otherwise their dangerous behavior permeates the rest of the organization. To avoid the organizational cancer spread by information or influence muzzlers, I recommend three actions for senior leaders:
  1. Build a culture that’s unafraid of retribution, where you can highlight and celebrate “non-muzzler” behaviors.
  2. Build feedback loops so that your internal and external relationships can inform you if they encounter a muzzler on your team.
  3. Never stop improving your bench, because the legacy you leave in your organization is the team and culture created on your watch. You want knowledge curating and influence sharing to be your mark, not hoarding and hiding.
  1. Like a silent cancer, information and influence muzzlers act in destructive ways that senior leaders may not know about.
  2. The presence of a muzzler indicates a cultural norm that may be a cancer -- and it’s probably spreading.
  3. Safeguard your legacy: Constantly improve your bench by cutting out any cancer -- including muzzlers.

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