Newspaper & Magazine

By Carol Hymowitz | The Wall Street Journal

Toxic bosses come in many shapes and sizes, but two types are almost mirror images of one another: the secretive boss who withholds information from others and the blabbermouth who says too much, often spilling confidences.

In both instances, these bosses are preoccupied with their own status and power. Secretive bosses believe the information they don't share makes them more important than subordinates and peers, while the blabbermouths think that what they divulge demonstrates their clout and membership in the inner circle. But both kinds of bosses hurt their employees' and companies' performance. "They marginalize and invalidate employees, or manipulate them for their own advancement and cause them to make bad decisions," says Dory Hollander, a psychologist and president of WiseWorkplaces, an Arlington, Va., executive-coaching firm.

The managers who conceal information tend to be more prevalent. Dede Haskins, vice president of enabling technology at Cigital, a Dulles, Va., software professional-services company, says that several of the nearly 30 bosses she has had during her 22-year career were withholders. "They disable you from being able to be successful," she says.

One boss at a prior employer knew Ms. Haskins had placed a marginal employee on probation and was moving toward firing him. The boss supported her decision. But he became enraged when he learned that, on a day when he wasn't at work, she had gone ahead and dismissed the employee.

"He blew a gasket," she says. Only then did she learn that the company was about to merge and would have to cut staff by about 15%. Her boss had wanted to dismiss the unproductive employee later and save another person's job, but he hadn't divulged any of this to Ms. Haskins.

"He didn't have to tell me about the upcoming merger, but he should have said, 'make sure you let me know before you dismiss this employee,' " she says. "Then he could have asked me to wait awhile."

Since then, whenever Ms. Haskins interviews for a job, she tries to gauge whether a prospective boss is a forthcoming team player or likely to be too secretive. "If I click with someone and we have an open discussion, I trust that they are going to want to keep me in the loop," she says. "But if I don't click, I know this is a potential risk area, and I may say during the interview that I only want to work for a company where information is shared." On at least one occasion, she says, she walked away from a potential job because she worried that wasn't the case.

Secretive bosses are also less likely to give credit to those to whom it's due. A marketing manager at a consumer-products company gave several strategic ideas to her boss, who then passed them along as her own to higher-level executives. The boss also didn't tell the manager that a product launch was being delayed, causing the manager to give misinformation to advertisers and her own staff.

"This boss is a gatekeeper with a gate that never swings open to her staff," says Ms. Hollander, who is coaching the marketing manager. She says she has advised the manager to tell her boss, "your lack of communication is bad for me and the company," but to look for a new job if the boss doesn't change within six months.

Michelle Zelsman, a consultant and writer in Washington, says she's learned that you can't necessarily change a secretive boss's behavior. She once worked for an entrepreneur who had established one successful technology company and was launching another. But after hiring several people to work with him, "he kept everyone in the dark about his strategy and goals and just issued day-to-day orders," she says. "I would tell him, 'you need to let us know the markets you want to chase, your business plan and tap into our creativity,' but he wanted to control everything." Within a year, she and the others had quit and the business had folded.

Blabbermouth bosses, meanwhile, fall into several categories. If they are underhandedly competitive, they may spread information that a colleague has shared confidentially, which may be damaging to the colleague. They may gossip about other executives and complain about directives they've been asked to carry out. Or they may divulge their own career or personal problems. As a result, employees may think of their boss as a friend rather than the person who judges their work, and they're more apt to question the boss's decisions or imitate his or her gossipy behavior.

When talking about work projects with her staff, a senior executive at a large consumer-products company embellished her directives with anecdotes about private discussions she had had with other top executives. "It was always 'he said this' and 'she said that,' " says Judith E. Glaser, CEO of the coaching firm Benchmark Communications, New York, who is coaching the executive.

The executive "did the same thing with me as with her employees, so I'd interrupt her and say, 'I don't need to know that, and there's a better way to communicate this that gets to the point,' " says Ms. Glaser. She advises managers who have blabbermouth bosses not to mirror their behavior. "You won't be viewed as a leader if you do," she says.

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