Classic: Behaviors Managers Hate, Hiding

Originally Published 1/11/2012

Hiders hide things from their boss (typically, bad news,) for a variety of reasons.

It's pretty clear what's going through the head of a "Hider" when he engages in such behavior – he is afraid.  Afraid of being blamed for that project headed for the ditch.  Afraid of the damage getting tagged with a failed effort will do to his reputation.  Afraid of taking responsibility.  Afraid of admitting the truth.

When faced with a project going the wrong direction, the Hider keeps her head down and pretends everything is fine.  You can expect the Hider to be quietly planning her exit from the company as her project drifts toward disaster.  And sometimes, in a supreme act of self-deception, the Hider convinces herself that everything is okay, being almost as surprised as her manager when everything craters.

Sometimes the Hider is hoping for a miracle that will turn the situation around, rescuing victory from the jaws of defeat.  In my experience, that miracle never comes.  As a manager, I grew to realize that there was truth in the old saying:  "if it can go wrong, it probably will".  I knew that the only way to prevent failures was to become aware of such problems early enough to do something to change their trajectories.  Because of this, the Hider became one of my worst enemies.  In most of my biggest managerial failures there was a degree of hiding in the mix, and usually this was the main behavior that turned a manageable problem into a disaster.

At one factory that reported to me, the plant manager had an impressive track record of delivering great financial performance quarter after quarter.  His success ran for several years, and as with most things that are going right in a business, there wasn’t much attention paid to his operation.  What I failed to realize was that he was hiding significant problems while utilizing the old financial technique of “kicking the can down the road.”  Bad inventory was piling up to epic levels, competent staff members systematically were traded out for “yes men,” and maintenance was repeatedly neglected all in order to boost short term earnings.

Of course all of this was hidden and carefully managed.  When we had a major equipment breakdown and these bad behaviors finally came to light, there were literally years of sins to atone for.  The plant manager was eventually fired, but the entire disaster reflected poorly on me.  I would have gladly traded a bit less profit in those “go-go” quarters for the elimination of the Hider’s snowballing damage.

Managers do a lot to encourage Hiding.  Many managers (dare I say, most?), seemed to be obsessed with what I call "the search for the guilty and the punishment of the innocent."  They start with the assumption that every problem has a name attached to it, and their mission is to find that name and exact revenge -- public ridicule, formal discipline, or even firing.  In such an environment, is it any surprise an employee would reflexively hide a pending disaster and hope for a miracle?

Not all managers are serial punishers, but their employees continue to hide things.  Perhaps this occurs because the hiding behavior is deeply ingrained, but I suspect in many cases they fear to admit the coming disaster even to themselves.

In my experience, managers tend to be much more flagrant "hiders" than individual contributors.  This is probably because managers generally receive more trust and have a wider span of control.  When distance is also involved, a plant, project, or business unit can get far off the tracks before the truth comes to light.

One general manager that reported to me decided to restructure his operations in an attempt to move into a new, higher margin segment of the market.  While not a bad idea on the surface, he made a series of crippling decisions that almost killed the old business long before the new one was ready.  For months, he was “on the verge” of introducing the new products that would “save” the situation.  Once he was eventually fired, we discovered he was nowhere near to having the new product line ready.  His hiding behavior led to critical delays in the effort to rescue the old business and kept us focused on trying to enter the new segment for far too long.

Needless to say, the financial results were devastating.

When a fairly senior manager engages in hiding behavior they inevitably crash and burn.  The resulting situation is almost always extremely ugly.  This is why when a senior person leaves under "stressed" circumstances, you can usually expect to find a large mess in their wake.

While hiding is one of my more hated behaviors, the other extreme, upward delegating, is also annoying (although far less damaging).  Upward delegators are employees that see danger at every turn, and often doubt any assignment can be completed as envisioned.  As a result, the upward delegator constantly tries to get his boss’s fingerprints on everything.  This is nothing more than a craven attempt to try to reduce his own potential culpability.

Your best bet as an employee is to walk a path that avoids both hiding and upward delegation.  This is just another example of following Aristotle’s “golden mean.”  The best employees call attention to real issues without going overboard, and they never upward delegate.  To be safe, I recommend employees raise issues when in doubt rather than ignoring them.  If you find yourself needing a miracle to save your project, you're definitely deep in "hider" territory.

Posts in the “Behaviors Managers Hate” Series

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