Information management problems? Maybe it’s just poor workflow or maybe you are dealing with information hoarding! A good friend emailed me recently about the concept of hoarding at work. I write and speak extensively about individuals who sabotage others’ performance and damage workplace culture. The act of withholding information is a common tactic used by toxic employees. This article outlines examples of information withholding and power withholding, both aimed at maintaining the offending employee’s informal power at work.
Merely poor workflow?
Some workplaces flow work and information seamlessly from one team to another. This doesn’t happen by accident. Optimum efficiency requires the identification of the key information required by each work group as products or information flow from a point of origin to the point of delivery.
Few companies have the discipline to step back from operational concerns to really assess information flow. But the concept of 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? There’s another story.
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 type of “toxic” employee is not guided by a code of ethics or duty to support coworkers to do their best. They are often motivated by personal gain. Their coworkers are either favored allies or those by whom they feel threatened. 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.”
Somewhat more benign information control might include individuals who have a need to control certain kinds of information with good intent. A forms manager may be a little obsessed about ensuring that no one else makes changes to forms without going through the “proper” channels. This can serve a useful purpose – forms are well-organized and only the most recent versions are available.
Information Hoarders on the other hand, can be destructive. These individuals deliberately deprive folks of needed information. This tactic increases their power and diminishes the power of those who are missing timely or crucial information. Examples can include:
- Withholding or delaying key information that other departments need to perform well.
- Leaving names off invitations or a notice 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 resource never receives 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.
- Purposely ignoring email or voice mail requests for information or help.
Power Hoarding is a similar dynamic and involves inflating one’s value or diminishing the value of others. Examples are:
- Sabotaging the performance results of other employees.
- Giving assignments that are impossible to carry out successfully.
- Withholding credit or taking credit for others’ performance or ideas.
- Limiting access to those with power in the company hierarchy.
There are ways for Leaders to mitigate these tactics. Among them, speaking directly to the offending employee when he or she is caught using these tactics. If it was an innocent mistake it won’t happen again. If it is part of a pattern, consequences can be increased. If you are a coworker, the social dynamics and informal power structure at play may make you a target if you speak up. Don’t power struggle directly with these clever employees. You won’t win. My blog includes several other articles with comprehensive strategies for dealing with toxic employees in the workplace.
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