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Do You Work With An Empire Builder?

Is productivity at your office slowing down? Are employees spending valuable time waiting on the job?

Warning: You may have an empire builder in your midst.

What is an empire builder, you ask? Empire builders are employees who don't like sharing what they know, because withholding information is how they build job security. Knowledge is power. If your company were an episode of "Information Hoarders: Buried Alive," this employee would be the star of the show and just as reluctant to change his or her ways.

The "way" of the empire builder, of course, is to make everyone in the company completely reliant on them in some way, shape or form. It's the rank-and-file employee who is the only one who knows the combination to the company safe and everyone must wait for her to open it, for example. It's the cubicle dweller who is the only one who knows a key detail required to move important projects along. In both cases, productivity stalls until this employee turns the key, sometimes literally, to let the work flow.

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It can take months or years for this employee to build a secretive information empire -- Rome wasn't built in a day, as they say! -- and it can take just as long to unravel the problem if you're not paying attention. Left unchecked, management can come to feel like a hostage to this one employee. What will we do if the employee gets sick, or suddenly quits? When the very thought of the employee's absence makes management sweat, the empire builder has attained his or her goal: To be seen as indispensable, and therefore impervious to layoffs.

I wrote a column about empire builders years ago, but it’s just as relevant today, if not more so, given the high unemployment rate and rampant workplace fears over fleeting job security. So how should you deal with the employee who is busy building a data empire right underneath your nose?

Sadly, never assume that everyone in your office is a team player because these workers seek to put the "I" in "team" at every opportunity. This realization can be a difficult one for entrepreneurs who want the workplace to feel like a close-knit family. But families can be dysfunctional, so make sure to cross-train everyone continuously so no one employee can become too powerful over information regarding any given project or procedure. Even areas of seemingly minor or petty provenance can become danger zones for empire building. Perhaps an employee positions herself as the only worker allowed access to the storage supply closet, and therefore only she knows where the binders are buried (in the banker's box behind the printer paper in the back, left corner...shhh!). In my experience, the lower on the totem pole, the greater the chances of empire building.

Look for odd hang-ups, too. Why is the department always running behind and missing deadlines? Why do employees always seem so frustrated? Why is there so much turnover? You could find all roads lead to one individual, and the person's fed-up co-workers will likely be the ones to drop the hints that point you in the right direction.

Finally, you'll have to confront the empire builder. Require him or her to start filling co-workers in on the details, then make sure it's happening. Make it clear that company information needs to be shared with co-workers for projects to run smoothly. Managers could feel like they're trying to pry open the Disney vault before an official release date, but it's a necessary step that lets the empire builder know the jig is up. The employee won't be happy that you're eroding his or her power base, but it's better to have this person potentially quit the company sooner rather than later.

Whatever you do, don't enable this employee to keeping hoarding information. The future of your business depends on dealing with this problem. Besides, even the Roman Empire met its match eventually, right?


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