Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Are You a Knowledge Hoarder?

In my previous incarnation as a small unit leader, I was not wildly successful. It stemmed largely from my personal insecurities. When I needed someone to cover for me or to complete a project, I was helpful...but not as helpful as I could have been. I invariably omitted some vital piece or a bit of information that could have helped the other person succeed. I called this "knowledge hoarding" and I was a consummate player in the game. It took me a long time to realize that true power comes from knowledge sharing.

As a more seasoned leader, I try to give my juniors all the information I can. The benefit of open communication means they come to me with their questions and concerns, and they often possess information I need to provide to senior leadership.

Marshall Goldsmith addresses this issue much more eloquently than I can, and he and Patricia Wheeler have graciously permitted reprinting an excerpt from one of his monthly newsletters here. Consider subscribing to Leading News---their monthly newsletter dedicated to helping leaders become successful.

Withholding Information
By Marshall Goldsmith

In the age of knowledge workers, the saying that information is power is truer than ever—which makes withholding information even more extreme and irritating.

Intentionally withholding information is the opposite of adding value. We are deleting value. Yet it has the same purpose: to gain power. It’s the same old need to win, only more devious. And it appears in more forms than merely playing our cards close to our vest. You see it in people who exaggerate the virtue of keeping a secret; they use it as an excuse to leave you out of the information flow. You see it in its passive-aggressive incarnation in people who don’t return your phone calls, answer your emails, or only give partial answers.

If you don’t understand why it annoys people, reflect on how you felt about the following events:
- A meeting you weren’t told about
- A memo or e-mail you weren’t copied on
- A moment when you were the last person to learn something

The problem with not sharing information—for whatever reason—is that it rarely achieves the desired effect. You may think you’re gaining an edge and consolidating power, but you’re actually breeding mistrust. In order to have power, you need to inspire loyalty rather than fear and suspicion.

What I’m describing here is not just the willful poison-sowing refusal to share information, the way people behave when they want to divide and conquer. I’m also talking about all the unintentional or accidental ways we withhold information.

We do this when we’re too busy to get back to someone with valuable information.

We do this when we forget to include someone in our discussions or meetings.

We do this when we delegate a task to our subordinates but don’t take the time to show them exactly how we want the task done.

I was advising a friend who was having trouble with his assistant. They weren’t meshing as a team but he didn’t know why or how to fix the problem. I asked him, “What would your assistant say is your biggest flaw as a boss?”

“That I don’t communicate enough with her,” he answered, “and I leave her out of the loop.”

I observed him one day at work, and what I saw explained everything. He was already at his desk checking his e-mail when his assistant arrived. She poked her head in to say good morning, and he waved as he talked on his cell phone. When the call ended, he turned back to his computer. His assistant periodically came in to notify him of calls, which he took while continuing to scan his computer. After a few hours, I asked him if all days were like this.

“Pretty much,” he said.

My friend, indeed, was guilty of keeping his assistant in the dark, but he was not doing so maliciously or intentionally. His work life was like a haphazard fire drill. He was so distracted, so disorganized, so busy responding to calls and putting out fires that he never had time to sit down with his assistant for a daily briefing.

If he had, I suspect it would have solved their information sharing issue.

I suspect this is a big reason why so many of us withhold information. It’s not that we want to keep people in the dark. It’s simply that we’re too busy. We mean well. We have good intentions. But we fail to get around to it. As a result we become bad at sharing information, and over time it begins to look like we are withholding information.

Being bad at sharing information doesn’t mean we are willfully withholding it…but the net result is the same in the eyes of the people around us.

How do you stop withholding information?

Simple answer: Start sharing it.

That’s what my friend did. He made sharing information a higher priority in his busy day. He made time to debrief his assistant daily, and held to this commitment no matter what was going on.

If this is your problem, I advise the same solution. You will not only improve your communication, but you will prove that you care about your coworkers, demonstrating that what they think matters to you. It’s not often we get such a two-for-the-price-of-one solution to our interpersonal challenges…but making the subtle shift from withholding to sharing information is one of them.

Excerpted from What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, 2007

Marshall Goldsmith is a world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, measurable change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams. He has been named one of the top 50 leaders influencing the field of management over the last century (American Management Association), one of the five most respected executive coaches (Forbes) and among the top ten executive educators (Wall Street Journal). Marshall invites you to visit his library (MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com) for articles and resources you can use.

No comments: