If you’re the manager, it’s your job not to act surprised

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A lot of things go wrong in business and at work.  One thing that shouldn’t go wrong is the manager being the one who is surprised when things go bad.  In fact, it is the specific job of the manager NOT to be the one who is surprised when things go wrong.

Have you ever had a manager who yells, “What happened?”  “How could that have happened!”  Then the manager gets mad at whoever could be responsible, or perhaps mad at the messenger, “I can’t believe you did this!” “What kind of incompetent crap is going on here?” “Go fix it and don’t come back until it is!” “How come this project line item has status of red?!!”

Ah, these are symptoms of a manager who acts surprised when something goes bad.  So much to say on this topic!  I’ll start with this:  It’s the manager’s job NOT to be surprised.

The manager is supposedly the one with the greatest visibility of the work environment and output, who understands the best who is on the team, and what the team ought to be working on.  The manager is the one who should know the approximate quality of the team output and what aspects of it can be better.

It is the manager’s role to know the risks of the work activity and where it could go bad.  When a bad event from one of these risks manifests — whether it was a known risk or an unknown risk — it is still the manager’s job to know that this kind of stuff does happen.

When the manager is surprised by events, this is a clear indicator that the manager is managing from a deficit.  In my discussion of managing from a deficit in previous articles, the manager attempts to take short cuts to managing, thereby announcing to the team that he is no manager.  He is, instead, someone who was given the role of the manager, but is not performing the role of the manager.

The managerial deficit is worsened by the manager trying to solve the problems of the deficit via more short cuts.  In today’s example, it’s being surprised and shocked that something could go wrong, and, in most cases, blaming someone other than himself for the problem.  The deficit grows because this act of surprise doesn’t solve the problem.  It makes it worse.

When a manager acts surprised when there is bad news, the team can try to adjust by informing the manager of the risks better, or give better updates.  But the more likely behavior is they will try to hide the bad news longer, and they will strategize for how to place blame on people other than themselves.  Then, when the bad news comes out, the manager is more surprised, angrier, and more blaming.  What a tangled web!

Note that I am not saying that the managers should be immune from surprises, but acting surprised is a frequent management mistake.

The alternative is to NOT act surprised.  To use positive terms, this means using the following phrases to the bearer of bad news – in a calm and deliberate voice:

“I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“I should have seen this coming.”

“I have seen this coming and we haven’t done enough to stop it.”

“Thanks for telling me.  Let’s identify what to do next.”

In these statements the manager can be surprised, but not act surprised.  The focus transitions away from the surprise to working on solving the problem, rather than focusing on massaging the manager’s fragile ego.

Do you have a manager who acts surprised? Is it when there is bad news?  What about managers who don’t seem to act surprised?  Do you find them more effective?

Related articles:

The manager who yells is managing from a deficit

The Cost of Low Quality Management

Employees leaving bad managers – what kind of actionable feedback does this provide the manager?

When an employee does something wrong, it’s not always about the person. It’s about the system, too.

Why the annual performance review is often toxic

The myth of “one good thing, one bad thing” on a performance review

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


5 Responses to “If you’re the manager, it’s your job not to act surprised”
  1. Pat says:

    Keep those good scripts coming!


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  1. […] initially to feedback in a negative manner (especially if feedback is given rarely) that a manager should not be surprised when this happens. Attempts to mitigate this negative reaction with “You don’t take feedback […]

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