Top work advice arrived this week courtesy of the Trump administration. If you need to manage a temperamental boss, hide difficult news. Not metaphorically, but literally. Shove it in a drawer, a cupboard, drizzle it in chocolate sauce and eat it if you must. Just get it out of sight.
This example of boss containment — or bosscon, for short — was revealed by the journalist Bob Woodward in his new book, Fear: Trump in the White House.
In the book, the journalist describes Gary Cohn, the former US chief economic adviser, removing a letter from President Donald Trump’s desk, a tactic apparently deployed by others to prevent international trade and security meltdowns. “I wouldn’t let him see it,” Mr Cohn allegedly said. “He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”
The bosscon strategy was reiterated in this week’s New York Times opinion article written by an anonymous White House official. Senior staff in Mr Trump’s administration, it said, are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations”.
Bosscon is little-discussed; so many management books are preoccupied by leadership.
Hiding documents to prevent an international meltdown is extreme, but such skulduggery by underlings is not unusual. One friend advises a strict obfuscation policy. Otherwise her meddlesome boss interferes unnecessarily. “Sometimes it’s easier to crack on without his input,” she confides.
According to Bob Sutton, Stanford University’s professor of management and author of Bad Boss, Good Boss, “Smart underlings . . . ignore dumb orders . . . lie to their bosses and say that things have been done that have not been done and they withhold bad news” — otherwise known as the “mum effect”, our eagerness to impart good news, and reluctance to share bad.
The more hostile or temperamental a boss, the less likely it will be that their juniors will relay bad news.
This can backfire, as shown by a study looking into the decline of Nokia, the Finish telecoms company, between 2005 and 2010. Fearing the hostile reactions of top managers, workers “remained silent or provided optimistic, filtered information” in strategy conversations. The engineers’ inability to voice concerns about the Symbian operating system ultimately led to Nokia’s eclipse by Apple and Google. One of the study’s authors, Timo Vuori, an assistant professor of strategic management at Aalto University, points out that the danger of hiding information — due to fear — is that it prevents the leader from making sound decisions.
It is not just the hostile or meddling managers from whom employees will hide information. It is also the hapless. Despite espousing an “open-door policy”, most bosses do not receive the intelligence they need. André Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, says that most senior managers are pretty clueless about what actually happens in their organisations.
“They spend far more time talking to external [audiences] than finding out what is happening internally. The result is they give underlings lots of space to hide things [from] them.”
This might be for the best. In one experiment conducted in a Chinese mobile phone factory by Harvard Business School, a curtain was erected around production lines. The result? The teams given privacy increased their productivity by up to 15 per cent. The researcher explained that the improvements came because the teams were able to experiment with new techniques away from their managers’ watch.