In short, the answer to the question – do we really need to know everything? – is, inevitably, no.

We don’t need to know everything. Equally, we do need to know something. Likewise, the people around us need to have the right information in order to do whatever it is that they need to do. 

Finding the balance between knowing everything, and knowing nothing, is hard. Especially if you are leading a team or group of people and need to have some eyes (or ears) on more than most. 

Recognising what we need to know, and what others need to know from us, can be a tricky business. Get it wrong, and it leads to all sorts of unhappy and unproductive people. So it pays to ensure that people understand who needs to know what. 

A white woman in a light blue shirt holding her hand up to her ear to show the need to know basis

The need to know basis

To complicate matters, the “need to know basis” is only one factor to consider.

My Grandad apparently did some kind of secret squirrel stuff in the Second World War. As a child, I was inquisitive but every time I asked him what he had been doing during that time, his response was always: “need to know basis”. It was so frustrating! I wanted to know but he used it as a way of not talking about the work he had done. Thankfully, I wasn’t in a position to mess anything up due to not knowing anything about his work. 

Unlike in organisations, people often do, and can, create all sorts of issues when they feel they aren’t getting the information they want. They may feel excluded, not valued or like they are missing out on something important. The truth is probably far more simple and it is is often not helpful or efficient to keep everyone in the loop. As is often the case though, what people want to know, and what they need to know are not necessarily the same thing.

The need to tell

Then there is the opposite issue: the need, and desire, to tell.

I don’t enjoy being e-mailed about every single step in the development of a project or piece of work. Particularly if I don’t need to know them all. Worse, it can make me feel overwhelmed.

But some people do need to share what they are doing as it helps them feel organised and in control. It is also a way of covering all bases, something which is actually often counterproductive as those people who don’t want (or need) to know switch off! It is far more useful to think in advance about who is receiving your communication before blasting everything out to everyone.

Nice and simple…

With such a mix of the wants and needs to know and tell, it can be easy to end up with a messy soup of tangled communication that doesn’t make any sense. 

Some norms

Which is why one of the key foundations of good communication at all levels is to have agreed and accepted norms, and ways of working. Ideally decided upon by those involved – ie the team – and agreed upon by everyone with space to iterate and improve as you go along.

These norms and ways of working might be simple and broad. A good example would be: in principle we don’t need to know the specifics but in general updates should be shared each week.

Or they may be more nuanced. For example, if the conversation is about the hardware involved in a project, certain team members should be involved.  Whereas, when the conference you are organising is the subject, then a different group of people would need to be included in updates.

You may want to include some specifics, such as when to e-mail or message someone in certain situations. Or bear in mind the hierarchy of notifying certain individuals over other people.

The less complicated and user friendly your norms and ways of working are, the better. Specific enough to be useful and yet broad enough that people can get on board with them.

In a team that all has a mix of needs and wants and preferences..how do you know?

You ask them.

Work with them to create their own rules, and then to monitor how they use them and update them as needed.

Monitor what is used and not used and bring that back to any follow up conversations. If you all agreed to do or not do a particular thing – why is it still happening. Are you still being e-mailed about things that have nothing to do with you and that you don’t care about because someone can’t remember or can’t be bothered to tailor their communication? There will always be someone who just does their own thing. The question is why are they carrying on regardless, and do they even know they are doing it!?

Get clear on your ‘need to know basis’

Do you need help working with your team to untangle the needs and wants of different people to create clearer communication? If so, get in touch and we can work on some ways forward.

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