Ghost Story

Jan 24, 2019

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

I believe in ghosts.

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

What I’m calling “ghosts” are those out-dated attitudes and behaviors about collaborative knowledge-sharing that still haunt corporate halls and factory floors. It’s an expensive haunting that causes wasted talent and underused brainpower and results in billions of dollars in lost ideas, in not sharing best practices and lessons learned, in a lack of innovation, and in employees’ not having the information needed to do their jobs.

Now that’s scary!

To explain what I’d been seeing in organizations, I wrote a book called Ghost Story. And I wrote it as a business fable—just for fun.
And fun I had creating some pretty weird characters: A magpie who hoards information, a three-legged Martian who is the ultimate outsider, a 400-pound pig in an admiral's uniform who treats staff as if they were children, and the two-year-old head of IT who speaks "dribble"—to name only a few.

Actually, it wasn’t that 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 defect like rats. So, naturally, the pig is hesitant to share.

Everyone in the story, in fact, 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.” So, over time, he stopped contributing.

And 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 midlevel managers regarding the state of knowledge-sharing in their teams and departments, I found women to be at a distinct disadvantage: They are less likely to speak up in meetings, less likely to believe 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 unconsciously competent. We simply “don’t know what we know.”

One of my favorite 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 also 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, are always imperfect people...or plants. In the end, Dot grows in her ability to value her own insights and to rely on herself.

I was once asked if any of these characters were autobiographical. I initially denied that any of them resembled me in the least, although one, “Mr. Right”—who has already found the right answer and so 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 behaviors. The trick, I’m learning, is to examine those behaviors in light of new realities.

For instance, like my character “The Miser” (a knowledge-hoarding Magpie), I’ve been haunted by the belief that “knowledge is power.” Which may have been true in an earlier, more stable time, when knowledge obsolescence took years and when hoarders created leverage and power bases by hanging onto what they knew. But today, when the shelf life of knowledge is much shorter, the new reality is that knowledge is no longer a commodity like gold, which holds (or increases) its worth over time. It’s more like milk—fluid, evolving, and stamped with an expiration date. And by the way, I’ve learned there is nothing less powerful than hanging on to knowledge whose time has expired.

How about you? Seen any ghosts lately?

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact or visit: