How to Get Information Out of Your Boss When He Doesn’t Want to Give It

One frustration most employees meet very early in their work
experience is that they can’t get info out of their boss. Their boss
stonewalls them.

Glenn Roberts, an engineer at his firm’s national headquarters in
Indianapolis, had been working on a project for the firm’s Los Angeles
plant. He’d been very successful with his projects in LA. So when he
took his proposal to his boss, he expected an immediate OK. But the boss
turned him down flat, telling him to do the proposal differently. When
he reminded the boss that he knew the client and that he’d had success
with him in the past, his boss stopped him and said, “Do it the way I
told you.”

Thinking the conversation was over, Glenn, frustrated and angry, went
back to his desk to make the necessary changes. The LA client, as Glenn
anticipated, was unhappy with the new proposal. When Glenn reported
back to his boss, he simply responded, “Too bad,” and turned away,
ending the conversation.

These kind of experiences are not all that unusual. Even though you
might not get your way, the truth of the matter is that if you
understood what the hell was going on in such situations, you’d be a lot
better off. You’d be able to make still better decisions in the future.

How do you get information out of your boss when he doesn’t want to give it to you?

Although this kind of experience is happening less in today’s
workplace,  Glenn’s interaction is still not unusual. First and
foremost, cool off and put on your analytical hat.

Based on all the potential players, there are at least four different
ways to think through Glenn’s experience: issues with himself, his
boss, upper management or the client. Although you may not be able to
figure out the exact problem for some time, you can usually up the ante
on your knowledge base and come up with a way to get some information
for future use.

FYI: As a general rule, think management first–both your boss and upper management. Not the client or yourself.

But don’t waste your time ascribing your boss’s response to
defensiveness. You want to know what’s going on. So forget the psych
crap and go for the facts. This is not Oprah stuff. I had to write a PhD
dissertation to understand that, but it can be learned on the first
week of anyone’s career.

Understanding the situation

To understand your boss’s response you should have a general
understanding of his business and your division, the client’s business
(Los Angeles) and the company’s business. So keep up-to-date on the
company’s important fiscal and competitive issues. Is the company losing
business or under an unusual amount of financial pressure? That will
quickly lead you into what’s going on in that LA plant. Is that plant
doing well or not, and why? If the company is under pressure or the LA
group is in trouble, those difficulties may be impacting Glenn’s
proposal and his client. And often, because of organizational politics
or concerns about competitive intelligence, the boss is not free to
comment on issues like that. For a better understanding of such issues,
go to my blog on strategic ambiguity.

Then, what do you know about your client’s relation to headquarters
and the company? If there’ve been recent problems or he’s having
difficulties of any sort that might possibly affect your proposal,
you’ve got another potential explanation for your boss’s resistance. For
personal and professional reasons many bosses aren’t going to comment
on another’s difficulties. You’ll have to look to your internal network
to get that information. Perhaps from a trusted colleague. If that
client is having personal issues such as productivity, relationships,
etc., that might explain the situation. Never forget that all business
issues always have a people side to them–they’re always political as hell and that’s reality.

What about your boss? Is he under pressure? Are there some new
players he’s having to deal with? Or has he failed to manage power
inside the organization? Furthermore, studies show that bosses have
vastly different perceptions of their relationship with their
subordinates and they’re very consistent in their use of the chosen
relationship. At one extreme are bosses who see clearly defined roles
and contracts for themselves (very hierarchical). They will keep
information close to the chest. At the other end of the continuum are
bosses who whose relationships are built on trust, support, liking and a
lot of interaction (participative). Dealing with the differences
requires flexibility on your part. Companies tend to be moving to
rewarding bosses who are far less hierarchical, engage in a lot of
coaching and readily offer both power and responsibility to their
people. Obviously, the participative boss is easier to deal with. (BTW:
Under pressure, over the long term bosses can change and move from one
extreme to another. When a culture changes its management expectations,
most managers will adapt. Painful, but they’ll do it.)

Finally, look at yourself. Has your boss been consistently giving you
information and solid feedback, occasionally intervening and making
suggestions? Is there a great deal of liking and respect between you and
him? Are you getting the cold shoulder and is the relationship getting
difficult? Don’t just pay attention to your own insights. Ask a few
trusted colleagues to weigh in with you on what they see happening.

Steps to take

If your boss’s comment is frustrating and/or out of character, you
should be ready with some smart talk to check out his comment. He’s not
liable to answer directly, so calculate your conversation. Use an
affirming, knowledgeable statement–a paraphrase–rather than a

Here are some evaluative paraphrases I’ve found to be very useful.
When your boss shuts down, look at him directly, and with a smile, say:

  • Sounds to me like that was a decision made above our grade level. (Not my or your.
    You want to know whether upper management made the decisision.
    Furthermore, no boss will easily admit to a decision made above his
    grade level.)
  • Sounds like somebody else has his finger in that pie.
  • I wasn’t ready for that response. Guess you know more about my client and his plant than I do. 

Enunciate clearly so there’s no question about what you’re saying. If
you’re a fast talker like me, slow down your speed and hit the
consonants with a punch. You want to make certain there’s no question
about what you’re saying.

There’s a less than 50% chance when your boss is stonewalling that he’ll comment. That’s to be expected–and OK. Watch his nonverbals with a laser focus.
A smile, wink, knowing grin, etc. mean that your guess was correct.
This also assumes that you’ve got a baseline sense of what your boss’s
nonverbals mean and how he uses them. (If you can’t read your boss’s
nonverbals, get with the program. Nonverbal failure will land you in
la-la land or on the streets looking for a new job.) I’ve also found
that a deadpan response and no discussion more often than not means my paraphrase was correct. No information is information. Using a paraphrase for information gathering is liable to earn your boss’s respect rather than his rejection.

Once you’ve gathered your info, you can check it out elsewhere. It is
especially important to adapt to that new information. With the changes
in place, you’ll be back in your boss’s good graces–or working your
network to look for other job prospects. Both options are a lot better
than fuming about the information you didn’t get from your boss. This is
just a job, not life or death.

It would be stupid of me to promise that you can always get
information out of your boss. But I’m after raising your batting
average. And these processes will significantly raise most workers’
batting average–as much as 25%. Any baseball player would be thrilled
with such an improvement.

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