Analyze This

When The Boss Won’t Share

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

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.  C.J., New York City

I think you’re dealing with what psychoanalysts call an “anal character,” although I suspect this executive has already been called a few other choice names alluding to the same anatomical region. People who hoard information and withhold vital input can be among the most frustrating people in a company, even if they’re highly productive. They may be smart, but they subvert efforts to cultivate openness and teamwork  and can wreak havoc on group endeavors.

What’s driving this behavior? Well, Freud described the way in which some personalities emerge unevenly  under the influence of difficult early-life circumstances or a troubled parent-child relationship. Parts of someone’s personality can get stuck at a certain stage of development, in other words, while other aspects, like intelligence, creativity, or ambition, proceed apace.

THE WAY ANALYSTS see it, the developmental milestones associated with the “terrible twos,” including toilet training, are all about control  of the mind as well as of the body. And a child’s need to feel control over the important people around him or her, especially if life feels anything but secure, can linger into adulthood and lead to withholding all sorts of things: ideas, information, money, emotions, access. The withholding is an attempt to counter old feelings of powerlessness and to establish a sense of order and control.

There’s also a fear of opening up that grows out deep feelings of distrust. Of course, as a self-protective measure, closing down tends to foster more distrust  on both sides.

I know executives like the one you’re struggling with. They can be exceedingly solicitous and apologetic about their style, but their need to withhold is so ingrained that it’s highly unlikely to be dislodged, even in the face of the most sensitive feedback. Trying to force them to share information only makes them shut down further. (Often, colleagues wind up working around such people, as you are doing.) The best hope is to try to establish greater trust with these folks in other ways, and to tactfully reinforce their rare moments of openness.