Bosses Create Problems If They’re Too Secretive Or Divulge Too Much

By Carol Hymowitz | The Wall Street Journal

Toxic bosses come in many shapes and sizes, but two types are almost mirror images of one another: the secretive boss who withholds information from others and the blabbermouth who says too much, often spilling confidences.

In both instances, these bosses are preoccupied with their own status and power. Secretive bosses believe the information they don't share makes them more important than subordinates and peers, while the blabbermouths think that what they divulge demonstrates their clout and membership in the inner circle. But both kinds of bosses hurt their employees' and companies' performance. "They marginalize and invalidate employees, or manipulate them for their own advancement and cause them to make bad decisions," says Dory Hollander, a psychologist and president of WiseWorkplaces, an Arlington, Va., executive-coaching firm.

The managers who conceal information tend to be more prevalent. Dede Haskins, vice president of enabling technology at Cigital, a Dulles, Va., software professional-services company, says that several of the nearly 30 bosses she has had during her 22-year career were withholders. "They disable you from being able to be successful," she says.

One boss at a prior employer knew Ms. Haskins had placed a marginal employee on probation and was moving toward firing him. The boss supported her decision. But he became enraged when he learned that, on a day when he wasn't at work, she had gone ahead and dismissed the employee.

"He blew a gasket," she says. Only then did she learn that the company was about to merge and would have to cut staff by about 15%. Her boss had wanted to dismiss the unproductive employee later and save another person's job, but he hadn't divulged any of this to Ms. Haskins.

"He didn't have to tell me about the upcoming merger, but he should have said, 'make sure you let me know before you dismiss this employee,' " she says. "Then he could have asked me to wait awhile."

Since then, whenever Ms. Haskins interviews for a job, she tries to gauge whether a prospective boss is a forthcoming team player or likely to be too secretive. "If I click with someone and we have an open discussion, I trust that they are going to want to keep me in the loop," she says. "But if I don't click, I know this is a potential risk area, and I may say during the interview that I only want to work for a company where information is shared." On at least one occasion, she says, she walked away from a potential job because she worried that wasn't the case.

Secretive bosses are also less likely to give credit to those to whom it's due. A marketing manager at a consumer-products company gave several strategic ideas to her boss, who then passed them along as her own to higher-level executives. The boss also didn't tell the manager that a product launch was being delayed, causing the manager to give misinformation to advertisers and her own staff.

"This boss is a gatekeeper with a gate that never swings open to her staff," says Ms. Hollander, who is coaching the marketing manager. She says she has advised the manager to tell her boss, "your lack of communication is bad for me and the company," but to look for a new job if the boss doesn't change within six months.

Michelle Zelsman, a consultant and writer in Washington, says she's learned that you can't necessarily change a secretive boss's behavior. She once worked for an entrepreneur who had established one successful technology company and was launching another. But after hiring several people to work with him, "he kept everyone in the dark about his strategy and goals and just issued day-to-day orders," she says. "I would tell him, 'you need to let us know the markets you want to chase, your business plan and tap into our creativity,' but he wanted to control everything." Within a year, she and the others had quit and the business had folded.

Blabbermouth bosses, meanwhile, fall into several categories. If they are underhandedly competitive, they may spread information that a colleague has shared confidentially, which may be damaging to the colleague. They may gossip about other executives and complain about directives they've been asked to carry out. Or they may divulge their own career or personal problems. As a result, employees may think of their boss as a friend rather than the person who judges their work, and they're more apt to question the boss's decisions or imitate his or her gossipy behavior.

When talking about work projects with her staff, a senior executive at a large consumer-products company embellished her directives with anecdotes about private discussions she had had with other top executives. "It was always 'he said this' and 'she said that,' " says Judith E. Glaser, CEO of the coaching firm Benchmark Communications, New York, who is coaching the executive.

The executive "did the same thing with me as with her employees, so I'd interrupt her and say, 'I don't need to know that, and there's a better way to communicate this that gets to the point,' " says Ms. Glaser. She advises managers who have blabbermouth bosses not to mirror their behavior. "You won't be viewed as a leader if you do," she says.

Showing Your Worth Without Showing Off

By Cheryl Dahle | THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: September 19, 2004

Q. You've begun to suspect that the importance of your stellar contributions to a big project is eluding your boss. How do you lobby for the credit you deserve without seeming like a smarmy self-promoter?

A. For starters, don't put the burden on your boss to keep tabs on your accomplishments. A boss who adequately recognizes and rewards employees is harder to find than a good sushi bar in Wyoming. ''In today's environment, many people are stuck doing the equivalent of two jobs. They don't have time to notice your performance,'' said Peggy Klaus, author of ''Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It'' (Warner Books, 2004). ''Your boss isn't psychic. You need to take matters into your own hands.''

Q. What's the best way to promote yourself?

A. Regular progress reports are a good basic approach. Ideally, you've got a list of specific goals that came out of your last performance review, or a set of project objectives that you can tick off. If so, you can send memos to the boss letting her know as each goal is accomplished, said Judith Glaser, an executive coach and the chief executive of Benchmark Communications, an executive coaching and management consulting firm in New York City. Even if you don't have that list, you can send reports. But list outcomes rather than tasks. No one cares that you spent 70 hours last month on business development, but they do care that you landed three new clients and paved the way for a fourth. You can adapt your reports to whatever format your boss prefers — e-mail, written memos, voice mail — as long as you keep a written copy for your annual review, Ms. Glaser said.

Q. Is there a more artful way to approach it?

A. A more subtle approach is to find a way to have regular, informal conversations with your boss that trumpet your work without grandstanding, Ms. Klaus said. The secret, she said, is to refine your storytelling: think of talking about yourself the way you talk about others you admire.

''When we talk about the accomplishments of someone that we adore and are proud of, we tell a story,'' she said. ''We include the context, the drama, the challenge, all these interesting tidbits. And then when we go to talk about ourselves,'' she added, we forget these skills. ''We slip into a monotone and deliver a laundry list.''

Hallie Hart, 37, a financial adviser in San Ramon, Calif., often uses her accomplishments in conversation. Ms. Hart says she'll often seek her boss's opinion about a decision as an excuse to update him on a project. She recently let him know that she had organized a high-profile networking dinner honoring Shinae Chun, director of the Women's Bureau of the United States Department of Labor, by inviting him to the dinner. ''I don't think of these conversations as bragging,'' Ms. Hart said. ''I think of it as sharing with people around me who I am and what I'm passionate about. The accomplishments are part of the larger picture about my enthusiasm for my work.''

Q. Are there any taboos about promoting your work?

A. It's rarely appropriate to toot your own horn in a team meeting, Ms. Glaser said. One of her clients, a senior executive at a pharmaceutical company, thought the best way to have his achievements recorded was to slide them into any group meeting or conversation. He thought he was ''supporting'' his team's work by relating progress. Everyone else thought he was an egomaniac.

''He really had to work on noticing how often he was chiming in with information about himself, or taking credit, as opposed to contributing something more neutral or complimenting someone else,'' Ms. Glaser said. ''Once he adjusted that balance, people saw him as more collaborative and were more willing to give him credit.''

Q. Is it better to be explicit or indirect?

A. Ideally, you want a mixture. But Ms. Glaser says the subtlest, most effective way is to make broadcasting what you're doing inextricable from the work itself. Last year, she coached one client, an employee of a financial services company, who managed a large project spanning many departments. The woman enlisted many senior executives by explaining the project and how it could help their work. At the end of that year, she was one of a small, elite group of employees not on the senior executive team to be invited to the annual executive retreat.

Q. Is there a way to enlist your colleagues in singing your praises?

A. What goes around comes around, Ms. Glaser said. If you want to create an environment in which others talk up your achievements, do that for them first. You may also lend your expertise or time to colleagues as a way of highlighting your skills in that area. ''The best thing in the world is to never have to sell yourself,'' Ms. Glaser said. ''The accolades come out of referrals and people's gratefulness for your contribution.''

Q. But can you go too far in praising others instead of yourself?

A. Sure, and people whose primary responsibility is to lead teams are most at risk. There is a danger of passing all the credit along to those who execute the plans, without highlighting your own skills and talents in managing. Ms. Glaser coached one senior pharmaceutical executive last year whose chief executive didn't think he had the chops for a promotion because all he talked about were the accomplishments of the team. He had to learn to include himself in the story and to make clear what insights, research or work on his part had helped the team.

''If you are always eating humble pie,'' Ms. Glaser said, ''you're much less likely to get to taste the promotion pie.''