#8 Info Sharing Boss

by Steven Cerri on October 4, 2006

My Boss Won’t Share Information

Talk to me!

Good morning!

Once again, I was reading a magazine and thought I was dreaming. This time it was the October 9, 2006 edition of BusinessWeek. There happens to be a weekly column called “Analyze This”. The question came from C.J. of New York City. C.J. wrote, “I work with a top executive who regularly fails to share information I need. I wind up hearing about concerns he has or steps he has taken from colleagues in other departments. Then I have to scramble to adjust a deadline or a budget, sometimes narrowly averting disaster. During project postmortems with him, some of us have broached the issue by pointing out problems that might have been avoided with better communication. He’s quick to apologize, but his behavior doesn’t change. I’m stymied.”

Now, who among us with some experience hasn’t run into a person like this, be they our boss or a colleague? They’re out there. It’s clear that this isn’t the best working relationship and C.J. is understandably “stymied”.

What I found interesting was the response C.J. got from the column author. The author began his response by stating what he thought “psychoanalysts” would call this person. Some 343 words were devoted to the article (yes, I did a word count on the column). Of those 343 words, 317 were devoted to the psychoanalysis of C.J.’s boss and 26 words were devoted to suggestions that C.J. could implement to enhance communication with the boss. In the final analysis, the column suggested that there probably wasn’t much C.J. could do, that C.J. would probably have to continue working around the boss, and that C.J. should “try to establish greater trust with (the boss) in other ways, and to tactfully reinforce (the boss’) rare moments of openness.” I have to tell you, 26 words out of 343 doesn’t make a very useful response, even in a short, cramped, magazine column.

Now in the world of technical professionals and technical management, this BusinessWeek response wouldn’t fly. Probably more than any other group I’ve worked with, technical professionals and technical managers are very leery of “psycho-bable”. If you want to loose a technical professional just start talking about the psychological implications of their childhood or of the childhood of someone they work with.

Frankly I agree. As a technical professional and a technical manager, I’m paid for the necessary and appropriate behaviors that lead to results. I’m not paid for psychoanalysis.

So, how would I go about dealing with the person C.J. is working with? Whether it’s my boss, and it has been, or whether it’s one of my colleagues, and it has been, the approach is basically the same. Let’s assume that my situation is exactly like C.J.’s. My boss has a tendency to withhold information. My approach follows some very basic, fundamental rules or theorems of communication and relationships.

The first theorem is: No one exists in a vacuum. We all exist in “relationship to one another.”

So when I think about communicating with my boss in order to get an open communication, I have to think about a “communication system” made up of me and my boss. This is not just about my boss and his behavior. It is about my boss’ behavior in relation to me. It’s about our communication process and I’m going to be looking at how I can communicate with my boss in order to alter his openness. And it will be my communication that will either motivate him to share information or not. (My assumption here is that there is a possibility for openness, and therefore, I can get the openness to show up at some point with the right “stimulus”.)

The second theorem is: Every behavior that a person exhibits has some positive purpose, some positive intention, from their point of view.

Therefore, my boss is withholding information because he thinks there is something positive he is getting out of it. I’m not interested in his childhood or his “terrible twos”.

For example, I once worked with a colleague who always, and I mean always, took a contrary point of view to any new idea that I or someone else put forward. One day I asked him what the positive purpose of his approach was. He nonchalantly indicated that he felt it was his mission to make certain that we didn’t overlook any potential flaw that could cause us great difficulty on our project, down stream. It was a reasonable goal but his implementation sucked! But now I understood and I could work with him to support his need to find “dangers” while moving the project forward.

Also, in his question, C.J. indicates that in the “project postmortems with him, some of us have broached the issue by pointing out problems that might have been avoided with better communication. He’s quick to apologize, but his behavior doesn’t change.” C.J. is falling down on the job here. Telling his boss about “problems that might have been avoided with better communication” is not explaining to C.J.’s boss what the issue really is. Saying that problems could be avoided with more open communication isn’t explaining to the boss that the boss has a habit of withholding information. C.J. is only saying we would all be better off with better communication. That goes without saying. C.J. has to step up to the plate here and explain that his boss has a behavioral style that puts projects and people consistently at risk. If C.J. or others on the team aren’t willing to be this open how can they expect their boss to understand his need to do the same?

The third theorem is: If I can find out my boss’ positive outcome, his positive intention, I might be able to structure my conversations and requests for information so that giving me the information supports his outcome rather than seeming to undermine it.

Think of it this way. If my request for information seems to my boss to be contrary to the outcome he desires from withholding, he’ll just withhold more stringently. The way I find out my bosses positive outcome is to ask him. Many times I’ve asked these questions;

“I’m curious, what is it that you are attempting to accomplish by not giving me all the information you have about a topic as soon as you have it?” (By the way, the boss may not even know that he is withholding important information.)

Or,

“What is it that is important to you about holding information close to you and not letting it out?”

Or,

“There seems to be some information that you keep and act on. Is there something special or unique about that information that causes you not to share it with me and others?”

You may have to ask these questions over and over, perhaps over several weeks time but sooner or later you will get the answer. And when you get the answer you’ll know that it’s IT! There isn’t any way I can tell you what the answer will be or how you’ll know it. It will be context specific and that means that it will relate to the situation at hand.

Here’s a real-world example. I once had a software engineer who wouldn’t release his software to the customer. The project was a rapid-prototype for a database user interface. The program manager didn’t know how to get the software out of the developer’s hands and into the customer’s hands for first stage evaluation without making a scene. I was called in and after talking to the engineer for a few minutes I asked my question, “What’s important to you about holding on to the software and not releasing it now?” His response was that he wanted to pack as many features into the interface as possible so the customer could give him the maximum amount of feedback.

Once again, a reasonable goal. What he didn’t realize was that if he released the software immediately, he could get it back from the customer in time to perform one more iteration and get the customer’s feedback a second time. When I explained to him that a quick release would guarantee that he would actually get two cycles from the customer instead of one… the software was in the customer’s hands the next day.

I don’t know what C.J.’s boss is trying to accomplish by withholding information. However, what I do know is C.J. has a lot of options still open and available that he hasn’t yet tried. Before C.J. makes a habit of going around the boss or of trying to compliment the boss when he opens up, C.J. has plenty of proactive questioning and discussing that can be done with the boss. Nine times out of ten, my experience is that you can be successful in these kinds of situations, regardless of what Freud said.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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