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Carol Kinsey GomanI believe in ghosts.

Not only do I believe in ghosts, I’ve seen how they haunt workers, teams, departments and entire organizations. And nowhere are these workplace ghosts more insidious than in the area of collaboration.

What I’m calling “ghosts” are out-dated attitudes and behaviours about collaborative knowledge sharing that still haunt corporate halls and factory floors.

It’s an expensive haunting that causes wasted talent, especially underused brainpower. It results in billions of dollars in lost ideas, failure to share best practices and lessons learned, lack of innovation, and in employees not having the information needed to do their jobs.

Now that’s scary!

To tell the world what I observed in organizations, I even wrote a book called Ghost Story. I cast it as a business fable – just for fun.

It all began with the creation of some pretty weird characters: A magpie, who hoards information; a three-legged Martian,  the ultimate outsider; a 400-pound pig in an admiral’s uniform who treats staff as if they were children; and a two-year-old head of IT, who speaks “dribble” – to name only a few.

It wasn’t hard for me to create these characters. Truth is, I’ve met all of them. Of course, I’m speaking figuratively. The pig, for example, is the prototypical “command and control” manager who distributes information on a “need-to-know” basis. His role, he believes, is to protect people who are unable to absorb what’s really going on within the organization. Let them know what’s actually happening, he insists, and they would panic, freak out and jump ship as fast as possible. Naturally, the pig is hesitant to share.

Everyone in the story has a valid reason for not sharing information. The Martian tried to give his opinion when he first joined the organization, only to be told: “That’s not the way we do things around here. It may have worked on Mars, but not here.”  Over time, he stopped contributing.

We’ve all met the “techie” (and other experts like him) who thinks he’s informing us, but really just confuses the issue because he can’t translate what he knows into words we can understand.

Then there is Dot, the heroine of the story.

After surveying 200 mid-level managers regarding the state of knowledge sharing in their teams and departments, I found women, represented in the book by Dot, to be at a distinct disadvantage. They are less likely to speak up in meetings, incapable of believing that their contributions are valuable, and more likely to personalize failure while externalizing success. Dot symbolizes those of us who don’t share information because we are subconsciously competent. Sadly, we’re unaware of that fact.

One of my favourite characters in the book is a talking bonsai tree. I needed a living thing that Dot could use as a mentor, something you might find in a corporate meeting room. I wanted her mentor to have obvious flaws. The bonsai offers a lot of good advice, but doesn’t have Dot’s courage and inner strength. It’s a way of making the point that mentors, while incredibly valuable for a time, always are imperfect people. In the end, Dot grows in her ability to value her own insights and to rely on herself.

I once was asked if any of these characters were autobiographical. Initially, I denied that any of them resembled me in the least. (Although one character, Mr. Right, who has already found the right answer and refuses to look at alternatives, was very much like my husband.) But after thinking it over, I had to admit that I’ve been just as haunted as all my characters.

Under some circumstances, I’ve let ghosts lead me into any number of outdated behaviours. The trick, I’m learning, is to examine those behaviours in light of new realities.

For instance, like my character The Miser, a knowledge-hoarding Magpie, I had  been obsessed by the belief that knowledge is power. That may have been true in an earlier, more stable time when knowledge obsolescence took years and hoarders created leverage and power bases by hanging onto what they knew.

But today – when the shelf life of knowledge is unnervingly brief – the new reality is that knowledge no longer is a commodity like gold, which holds or increases its value over time. It’s more like milk – fluid, evolving and stamped with an expiration date. As such, I’ve learned that there is nothing more immobilizing than hanging on to knowledge whose time has expired.

How about you? Seen any ghosts lately?

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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