I was sitting down having my coffee this morning and thinking of all the stuff that goes on in most companies that I simply don’t have to deal with, and one thing came to the forefront of my mind. Today, I want to write about one of those lessons leaders learn, often the hard way, which is not always healthy, and what I do about it: Information brokerage.
In a nutshell, information is power in many organizations, especially for leadership. You may have a more senior title, but a junior with more information can quickly help you rise further or sink your ship.
Knowledge is power.
Similarly, the exchange of information is where many power dynamics exist, which isn’t always good.
Many leaders have a sense that what they know is useful, but they are only sometimes aware of who should or shouldn’t know it. Many leaders’ default position is to stay silent. The thinking here is that if nobody knows what you know, nobody can use it against you.
However, the other side is that more aggressive people will gain leverage by using the information that others only hoard.
Either way, when working with leaders, they always know more than they say. Even if they trust you completely, this information hoarding is almost a survival instinct, so they will naturally hold information back.
Just the Broad Strokes
The next move for most leaders is to divulge a hint that they know more than they’re letting on. They’ll say phrases like, “Oh, I’ve heard those rumors.” They’re signaling to those around that they are in the loop on whatever the topic is, often to assert that they are in more control of the situation than the others.
Leaking bits of information, often at a high level, is how many leaders establish themselves among peers in a given situation. The person who knows the most is the most trusted, has the first mover’s advantage, and has access to someone. So, if a leader indicates in a vague sense that they know about something, it signals to the rest that these other things are also true.
This situation is more like a hand of poker where leaders will ultimately have to decide if someone is bluffing about how much power they actually have.
A common situation is when one group hints about a project, then another builds it anyway and claims victory. The hint about the project was signaling to other leaders that they’ve got something. The other group called a bluff that the first leader had nothing, built the same project, and then claimed victory.
So, if you see a leader talking around a topic or acknowledging they are aware of something, they’re in the middle of positioning themselves.
The last category is easy to mishandle when you first join a group. Every group has a set of things they simply do not want to ever talk about or discuss. There will be a lot of pain and frustration with this topic. The hard part is that there is no obvious way to know what those things will be. These taboos are deeply connected to culture and past traumas.
So, whoever brings up a taboo will find themselves outside the group quickly. Opportunistic and aggressive leaders will use this opportunity to keep themselves in power by pointing out that the other leader brought up a taboo.
Leaders skilled at navigating organizations stick to the topics others discuss in the way they are discussed and very carefully test those boundaries with minor adjustments and tweaks. Those with a little less skill navigating will see a problem, name it, and then find out they’ve touched a taboo, and they will spend a long time getting their group capital back.
So, a good way to navigate is to pay close attention to what people talk about and even more to what they don’t.
But I’m a Consultant
One of the interesting things I get to do is observe groups and organizations, so my awareness of these dynamics helps me move through organizations while also not having to participate in them in the same way. Often, my very existence is to topple these Jenga towers of odd power dynamics around information brokerage.
Still, there are several truths I’ve hinted to that I want to quickly list that hopefully aid someone else in making sense of the odd places we all work:
- Leaders always know more than they’re letting on
- If you have trust, you can ask, “What else should I be aware of?”
- When you detect a leader signaling to others, ask, “How can I set you up to succeed here?”
- To avoid taboos, find someone you trust and talk 1:1 about the topics nobody else does to sense them out
- Information is power. You may tell everyone everything, but the order of who knows first matters