Managers behaving badly: Training the team not to report bad news
In my previous article, I discussed how it is important that a manager not act surprised – even when the manager is surprised. In many ways, this is the essence of a good manager – someone who manages the situation, even when the situation presents surprising results.
So here’s another place where you don’t want act surprised: When you see the status of something (whatever it is) reported as “Red” or “down” or “Needs improvement.”
Perhaps you are familiar with what I’m talking about: Many organizations have a structure where they are required to present status or metrics to the management team. On the report there is an indicator as to whether something is “Green”, “Yellow” or “Red”, or whatever the scale is (On track/off track, perhaps).
It has been observed that many managers seem to bristle, panic, obsess, get angry at, or demand action when they see the dreaded “red” on the status report. Or you may have observed a manager saying, “I don’t like to see that red on the status report.” Have you ever experienced this?
This is an example of a manager managing from a deficit – and creating a deficit that is much deeper every day. It is an indicator that your manager is trying to take short cuts, and identify ways to solve problems without solving problems. This starts a vicious cycle.
Here are some consequences of this behavior of reacting surprised or negatively whenever there is something that is listed as “red”:
1. You train your employees not to show “red”, and they will cease to provide you any bad news
If a manager reacts negatively or acts surprised when there is any hint of “bad” news, the manager immediately and swiftly trains the employees never to share bad news. They may resist this training and continue to give the manager bad news. But should the manager repeat this training, the employees will successfully hide from you anything that could be bad. Problem solved! Everything will be green now.
2. Bad news becomes an actual surprise
OK, so the manager has trained the employees to manipulate and filter information that goes to the manager. Now the manager doesn’t have to deal with things that are delayed, underperforming, or off track. However, they won’t be able to hide this from the manager for long! Some other indicator or information will come through that shows that things are going really badly and the manager was unaware of it. Since the manager thought that it was actually going well, when this contradictory information comes through, it is now an actual surprise, and whatever histrionics, tantrums, or anger that came out with the “red” status reports (now green) will be magnified significantly. This manager is now “doubling down” on using the art of being surprised and angry as a proxy for managing.
3. The bad news is probably worse than the indicator of “red” on a status report
Because there was a delay in the learning that things are not what they seem, and what was supposedly “green” is now “double red.” The problem is deeper and more entrenched than before. The manager has created a time-delay in identifying the problem and this has probably made the problem worse. Add to the fact that the manager has trained the employees to modify their communications with the manager so that problems are avoided rather than confronted. This is an additional deficit that has to be overcome.
4. The first bad news is the worst bad news – or is it?
In this scenario, the manager gets wind of bad news that was otherwise covered up – per the manager’s training – by the staff. Then the bad news gets to the manager. OK, so now the manager has to react. But consider this – is that bad news really the thing that ought to be resolved? Could there be other, more important things that need to be identified and resolved? After all, this was just the one thing that happened to seep through. Perhaps it isn’t really that big of a deal compared to what really is coming up! This method of learning bad news is a totally random funnel, so expect more random items to seep through, without any prioritization or resource allocation filter. Good luck!
5. The manager is not able to be part of the solution
When the manager trains the staff to hide bad news, this means the manager cannot assist in the problem-solving. The staff will instead say that they are working on it and continue the trained behaviors of trying to make the situation sound better than it is. They will come back to tell the manager that things are OK, when they may or may not be. In any case, they will not be engaged with the manager in the problem solving, they will try to control it. This is sounding less and less like managing.
6. The problem doesn’t get solved
When a manager trains a staff to not bring up bad news, they will work more on avoiding the bad news giving and less on solving the problem. They probably don’t have the means, and they definitely don’t have the support to actually solve the problem, so this is a reasonable choice on the part of the team. In this scenario, the problem gets worse and worse.
7. Managers start to believe that this is what good managing looks like
The manager who acts surprised or reacts negatively begins a wonderfully self-perpetuating cycle:
Manager reacts negatively > employees jump > employees scramble > employees run off to take care of it > employees let you know that it is much better > new bad news comes in > manager reacts negatively (start at the beginning).
From the manager’s perspective, this could, in its own twisted way, look like great managing. Look at how the employees react! Look at how the team rallies! Look at how things appear to get better! Look at how hard working everyone is. The team, from the manager’s perspective, is really can-do. The manager appears to have lots of power. Things are going great, except for the lies, deepening problems, increased inefficiency, and purely reactive work. Other than that, things are going great!
So this starts a greater cycle of managers appearing to get positive reinforcement for behavior that it directly opposite of what good management is. This starts a certain management “culture” that is hard to extricate.
All because of seeing “red” on a status report.
Have you ever had a manager who reacted negatively to a low mark on a status report? Did it start, ever so subtly, this vicious cycle?