A wise leader once told me, it’s not the problems that managers know about that cause them to get fired, it’s the ones they never see coming. As such, he made sure that his people told them of all the problems they were running into or heard about. This message was so entrenched that one time two different people heard bad news in a meeting and they both independently raced back to this vp’s office to tell him. We could call this rewarding the messenger instead of shooting him.
After witnessing people sit on problems for too long and the catastrophic effects of that, when I was helping a team in India ramp up I started each team meeting reminding the engineers that if they had problems, they should let us know right away and not try to hide them. If they raise the issue early, we have hundreds of possible solutions but if they sit on it until it’s close to the deadline we will have few options to solve the problem and will probably all regret it. Tell me problems early and I’ll be happy. Wait and hope it goes away and I’m going to be upset (even if it does go away).
We want transparency from others, but often find we would rather ask forgiveness than permission when it comes to communicating our own issues to others. When we face problems, we want to put our head in the sand and hope they go away or that someone else has worse problems so that no one finds out about our own (a.k.a. schedule chicken). As such, it’s often a temptation to communicate in a less transparent way: knowing bad news in advance, we decide we want to “soft land” it later. We decide not to slip the schedule even though we know there is no way we are going to hit that deadline until the deadline passes and we have to cop to the reality of the situation. Usually, we give into this temptations with those outside the organization (who sometimes require that you lie to them – related post), but still expect that internally we will be transparent. However, when we communicate this way with others, it models the communication standard and over time, we should not be surprised when internal to the organization people begin to hide bad news.
Those whom we lead will watch our actions for what we expect from them. Even if we try to reward transparent communication, unless we also model it, we will find ourselves communicated to the same way we communicate to others, leading us to be blind to problems we should have seen coming.
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