Information management troubles?
Is it just poor workflow or is it willful information hoarding! A good friend emailed me recently about the concept of information hoarding at work. I write and speak extensively about individuals who sabotage coworker performance and productivity at work. The act of withholding information is a common tactic used by difficult and uncooperative employees. This article outlines examples of information and power hoarding, both aimed at maintaining the offending employee’s informal power network.
Merely poor workflow?
Few workplaces flow work and information seamlessly from one internal team to another. If you haven’t paid attention to the work function, it’s likely your process has glitches.
Few companies have the discipline to step back from operational concerns to really assess information flow and it can take a while for a problem to become evident to leadership. An efficient work process assumes that workers are gathering and distributing information in the most effective way to those who need it. Are your employees passing work through to others to the best of their ability? If they are, great. If not, it could be inefficiency but sometimes it’s an uncooperative peer.
Rule of 1/3rds
When thinking of workplace dynamics, it’s helpful to picture three groups along a continuum.
- Those who like and support the company, sound processes and strong personal performance;
- Those who are neutral, undecided and who want to do reasonably well but are averse to confrontation and not particularly ambitious; and
- Employees, who are suspicious of management, don’t necessarily like the company and in some cases work against company goals for their own personal ends.
This last group of disgruntled employees is not guided by a code of ethics or duty to support coworkers’ performance. They are often motivated by personal gain or protection from the consequences of their poor performance. Coworkers are seen as either favored allies or “enemies” not to be trusted. Information withholding is a means to marginalize those out of favor. More information on this dynamic can be found at: “All about Toxic Employees in the Workplace.”
Information hoarding continuum
Useful information control might include individuals who have a need to control certain kinds of information with good intent. An automated forms designer might be focused on ensuring that no one else makes changes to forms without going through the “proper” channels. This can serve a useful purpose – forms should be well-organized and only the most recent versions are available to those who rely on the information gathered.
Information Hoarders on the other hand, are generally destructive. These individuals deliberately deprive folks of needed information. This tactic increases their power and diminishes the power of the employees they target. Effective productivity nightmare examples can include:
- Withholding or delaying key information other departments need to perform well.
- Leaving names off invitations or notices of a change in time or location of important meetings (think about the scene in the movie, “Baby Boom” where the female lead arrives at work and is surprised to learn that an important meeting is underway at an earlier time, without her).
- Omitting a name from a printed list of department staff or substituting an alternative name so that the proper person does not receive their calls and requests.
- Omitting names from email distribution of updates, marketing information or other data that helps individuals do their best.
- Denying access to electronically stored data or interfering with information needed to access this data – I had a client with a communications person who deliberately withheld log in credentials, effectively holding a newsletter hostage from a senior manager. They were eventually fired.
- Purposefully ignoring internal email or voicemail requests for information or help from coworkers.
Power Hoarding is a similar dynamic and involves inflating one’s value or diminishing the value of others. Examples are:
- Sabotage – Interfering with the performance results of other employees.
- Overloading – Giving assignments that are impossible to carry out successfully.
- Denying – Withholding credit or taking credit for others’ performance or ideas.
- Lockouts – Limiting access to those in favor.
- Alignments – Aligning with key funders or customers to inflate power and avoid consequences
Leaders can mitigate these tactics once they’re identified but can also prevent them with a little planning.
- Leaders – Incident: once this dynamic is discovered speak directly to the offending employee when he or she is caught using these tactics. If it was an innocent mistake it probably won’t happen again. If it is part of a longstanding pattern, make it clear that it is unacceptable. You may want to get some help from a consultant experienced in reversing longstanding negative dynamics. It may require a comprehensive approach.
- Leaders – Prevention: survey employees to identify information management improvements they would make if they were in charge and pay close attention to what comes back.
- Leaders – Prevention: when an employee complains about not having what they need to do their work, use caution about characterizing them as complainers and try to see potential value in what they’re saying. They might be disclosing an important and solvable problem.
- Leaders – Prevention: periodically review your internal processes and information flow; refine and improve them over time; correct problems as they are discovered.
- Victims – If you are a coworker, don’t power struggle directly with these clever employees. You’re not likely to win especially if the issue is long standing. Seek out a trusted associate as a sounding board on approaching management.
My blog includes several other articles with comprehensive strategies for dealing with difficult and uncooperative employees in the workplace.
(c) Copyright 2019 Benoit Consulting, LLC (revised January 2021) do not reprint without permission.