Tech & Work

Employee vs. manager: Why is my manager so secretive?

Why do managers who are otherwise very open with their staff sometimes act so secretive?

This is the second piece in our Employee vs. manager series in which an employee asks a question concerning a certain managerial behavior, and we have a manager address the question. Last time, we covered what hiring managers mean by the word "overqualified."

This week, a TechRepublic member writes to ask why his manager seems to be "secretive."

Question: I get along well with my manager. In fact, our whole team does. He's easy to talk to and seems to be completely supportive of the team. We all go out to lunch frequently as a group. But occasionally there has been a completely unexpected announcement from him of some major change in the way we do things, and once, a layoff came out of the blue. I understand that these come down from the top, but it's hard to really trust a guy who can keep things like this secret and then spring them on us. It's kind of personally hurtful and makes me wonder what else he isn't telling us."

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Patrick Gray, founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, answers this week's question. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.

Answer: This is likely a case where the most simple explanation is likely the most accurate: Your manager is paid to do a job, part of which is keeping secrets. While I'm not an anthropologist, I would imagine that since the dawn of human communication, one person has kept a secret from another, and it has caused stress and hurt feelings on behalf of both parties. This can be especially painful when a manager and employee have a good working and personal relationship. Despite that bond, a key aspect of a management position is keeping some information in confidence. You have surely heard the HR platitudes about lawsuits, material disclosures and the like, but more important in my mind is the question of disclosing information in a fair, widespread, and well-executed manner.

We have all seen how office gossip can spread like wildfire. Imagine for a moment a manager who discloses everything he or she knows in advance to their "circle of friends." This might be great for that inner circle, but consider how those outside the circle would feel when they are excluded from information that this manager has shared. This premature disclosure puts everyone in a bad position. Those who know information told to them in confidence must now make their own decision as to whether they should disclose that information to others, and without any official word from the top, exaggerations and misrepresentations are likely to create all manner of dire rumors and predictions for the worst.

In this scenario, since the information is still "secret" from the perspective of upper management, there is no recourse for those who have the information and want to ask questions, get clarification, or determine how the news directly affects them. If the news relates to something like a layoff or a merger, turning towards HR, executive management, or other line managers will result in a "no comment," since there is not yet any mechanism in place to answer questions or communicate the details behind the new policy or procedural action.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this discussion to realize is that your manager withholding information is not a comment on your working or personal relationship and should not be interpreted as such. You may be tempted to dust off the world's smallest violin as I ask you to put on the other person's shoes for a moment, but for many in management keeping secrets, especially around events that will dramatically affect their friends' and coworkers' lives, is one of the worst aspects of the job.

There are thousands of companies that do an extremely poor job of communicating big changes and lamenting that fact is likely more constructive than assuming your manager does not respect his or her relationship with you.

About Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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