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My boss told me not to share the information

Dear Office-Politics,

I am concerned regarding the last project I was given by my boss in private. I was told not to share the information with anyone. The project is as unreasonable as it is untimely. I have been working at the company for a few months and this has to go to a more experienced worker. Who can I go to and what can I do about this? Please help.

Confused


OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN

dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Confused,

We’re confused, too! Here’s hoping your boss gave you more data than we’re getting.

But here are some questions to ponder as you try to unravel this scenario.

HIDDEN AGENDAS OR LACK OF ETHICS

It’s curious that you are being held to secrecy which raises concerns regarding whether your boss might have a hidden agenda or ulterior motive behind his project request. It is entirely possible that what he/she is asking you to do is inappropriate, unethical, illegal, against company policy, would anger his/her superiors, connected to some power play, or self-interest-driven.

Can you give thought to why the assignment is being kept behind a wall of silence, since it is sometimes a warning signal that the boss is running a “Private Power Pocket,” purposely hiding something? If so, you may become trapped and need to make some tough choices. What could he be hiding? Do you want to unwittingly participate? Please document everything requested for your own private files so you are protected later. Does the substance of the work itself suggest any questionable intentions or borderline issues morally? The boss might be picking you as a “naive newcomer” or know you’re on thinner ice needing to pay dues so more likely to collude in troublesome initiatives. You need to decide whether you’ll take part.

We have NO way of knowing truth here so don’t get paranoid, but some other signals of a Private Power Pocket pointing to an unethical leader are:

1. Data is closely guarded and information flow in and out of the team is restricted. Do people say they must check things, all things with the boss before meeting with others or collaborating?
2. There is a revolving door of people leaving (by choice, hating the situation or becoming a victim fired for not cooperating).
3. Favorites in the group seemingly unconnected to competence or results.
4. An absence of open conflict, when there is a boss-led meeting, but a sense that in private people disagree (fear).

If this is an issue of an overly political power tyrant forcing you to participate in quasi-legal or hurtful behavior, then we would suggest a clear valuing decision on your part since becoming a whistle blower is dangerous and has trade-offs. Document and consider whether to approach Human Resources with your concerns but do so with open eyes to possible consequences. Also, the laws are just now changing regarding employers protecting whistleblowers!

SIMPLE POOR MANAGEMENT

It’s usually less likely to be an issue like described above and more possible that something more innocent is going on, just misreading your level of readiness ––– poor management but nothing untoward. Many managers fail to take into account the task level readiness of a new employee and heap on work they cannot do without more supervision, coaching, and training. Other managers trust too little in more senior employees and turn them off the opposite way by micro-managing! So consider it might just be that simple. Are there other signals of simply being a poor judge of competence and readiness on the boss’ part?

YOUR “BUZZ” OR PERCEPTION

Whatever the reason for giving you a project you are not ready to tackle, think about what your boss’ current perception of you might be?

How will that be impacted by your saying “no” and/or expressing concerns about the project? Maybe you’re selling yourself short and ARE the right person, making it a confidence problem on your part?

If the problem is one of too little time on your part due to too much else on your plate, that, too, is a different issue deserving of problem solving with the boss.

We are suggesting that you first diagnose the reasons for this and surface concerns directly with the boss first, which demonstrates respect for his turf and ego and avoids jumping to conclusions. As we said, hidden agendas are not likely the driving force, so unless you have strong evidence of “a snake slithering,” treat it more matter of factly and express concerns tactfully.

Remember, how you handle this WILL impact his perception of you as a complainer or doer, a team person or self-serving, a friend or an enemy, etc. You might even consider that taking it on and behind the scenes asking for a mentor or coach in this technical area (preferably outside of the company so that you don’t get into trouble for sharing the information with someone) could earn huge points and pour deposits into your emotional and political bank account with this boss, earning the right for future “withdrawals” (favors).

SAVVY VOCABULARY

Carefully select your words to be firm, not harsh as you surface your concerns about this. Make it clear you want to help, take on all, make your boss thrilled with your work, that you are flattered in his confidence. Then without using the word, “BUT….” (since it will negate and discount all the positive intentions you just expressed), gently say, “At the same time, I would appreciate discussing a concern I have…” and then raise the issues such as your wondering whether someone more experienced might be more qualified. Stress that you are more than willing to put in time and effort, so perhaps a solutions is partnering with someone who has proven track record in this area so that you can mentor or apprentice, working towards doing similar projects solo next time. Be clear you just want to ensure success, etc. The boss’ response, if you are reasonable and clear in your concern, should reveal lots about possible causes for this “unreasonable” and “untimely” project delegation. Let us know the outcome which will be further data. We’re in a data vacuum, but one thing follows the next. A step at a time. OK?

We hope this is enough food for thought given the brevity of your explanation. Good luck and keep us posted!

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Regards,

Rick and Marty

Rick Brandon, Ph.D. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.D. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

Publication note: This letter was originally published in 2006. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.

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