A failure to communicate



Be careful dealing with a boss's lack of transparency.


Q: For reasons he hasn't disclosed, my boss, a director of our company, doesn't permit me to share project details and financial status with my team members. As a result, they don't fully understand our project status or objectives, which has predictably led to big trouble. I don't want to create problems with my boss, and I'm not ready to resign. What are my options?

A: The late management guru Peter Drucker used to say that when sane, rational and moral people behave in ways that seem inexplicable, it's because they see a reality different than ours.

So let's start by giving your boss that triple benefit of the doubt: He's sane, rational and moral. (If he's not…well, that would lead to a whole different sort of article.) This leads us then to the second part of Mr. Drucker's maxim: Your boss is seeing a reality you don't.

One possibility is culture. In this case, the question comes from a person in sub-Saharan Africa. A friend of mine, a professor and author who happens to hail from the same country, laughed long and hard when he heard the question. “This boss is behaving the way that any boss would behave in that country,” he said. “We are raised there to believe that if people have knowledge, they will use it against us, to enrich themselves personally at our expense. The only way to protect against that is to guard all knowledge jealously, so that we are not taken advantage of.”

Given that culture changes only slowly over time, there may not be a lot you can do here. Your boss's psychological maps, the way he sees the world, were established a long time ago. They will not be easily modified, by you or anyone else.

There is, however, another possible explanation, one which gives us more reason for hope: Your boss is a product of his experience, and events in his life have convinced him that when it comes to information, silence is safer than sharing, and secrecy is superior to synergy.

Building Your Case

If your boss is wary of sharing project data, you won't persuade him otherwise with generalities. You need hard evidence that clearly shows the value of transparency. One great source is an article entitled “The success of international development projects, trust and communication: an African perspective” by Amadou Diallo and Denis Thuillier of the Université du Québec à Montréal [International Journal of Project Management, April 2005]).


Then look at specific evidence you can use from your own project. Approach it like a lawyer building a case: Focus on demonstrating cause and effect—specific past actions and their harmful results. Create a list of your project's disappointments. Then show, logically and systematically, how each of those setbacks can be traced directly to decisions and actions that kept your project partners in the dark. Stay away from emotion, and keep your arguments data-based and objective.

The best project manager I ever knew lived by the dictum that timing is everything—and that certainly applies to your situation. Don't move hastily. Wait until there has been a particularly egregious breakdown as a result of poor communication. Give the boss a few days to get over the disaster, and then make an appointment to present your ideas. That way, you position yourself not as a complainer but as a problem-solver.

You do need to recognize, of course, that you're in very dangerous territory here. There's no guarantee your boss will take your suggestions well. No one wants to be told that he or she has caused a project to fail. It's possible—likely, even, given his track record—that your boss may lash out at the nearest target, and that would be you.

And although you ended your question by saying you weren't ready to leave your job yet, you must accept that as a possibility. The question really is which course of action allows you to minimize the risk of such a dreadful outcome. PM


Bud Baker, PhD, is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to [email protected].





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