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No Surprises February 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , ,

What’s the worst thing that can happen to any leader?  Bad news? Terrible news? No.  The worst thing that can happen is surprising news.

I can handle problems of all shapes and sizes. Personnel issues, system failures, budget concerns, project setbacks: part and parcel of the job.  With any of these, the easiest way to handle any problem is when it is a small problem, before it becomes a big problem.  Big problems are hard; small problems are easy.

What infuriates me is when an issue builds over time and is then dumped in my lap, full-blown.  At this point, the solution is going to be complicated, expensive, and leave collateral damage.  Had I known earlier, I could have intervened in some more effective way.

Leaders get surprised when their people fail to keep them informed.  There is only so much information we can gather on our own.  Everything else comes to us from people who feel that they can tell us things, especially bad news, without fear of repercussions.  These people are crucial to our success; they form our early-warning system that eliminate surprises.

We must cultivate trust in our team to ensure that we maintain that open channel of communication.  When that trust is missing, people will stop communicating, either passively or actively.

In the passive mode, people just stop telling you things.  They don’t misrepresent things or try to sugarcoat bad news.  You lose a valuable source of information, so you are flying blind with respect to some aspect of your organization.

Far worse is the active mode.  In this mode, people stop bringing you bad news by replacing it with good news.  Projects are said to be on track when they really aren’t.  Systems are said to be stable when they really aren’t.  People are said to be happy when they really aren’t.  At best, these people think they are pleasing you by bringing you good news while frantically trying to fix the underlying problems.  At worst, they are being openly insubordinate and undermining your ability to lead.

You can cure both of these problems.  The passive folks can be won over by regaining their trust.  You must work to keep lines of communication open, as I’ve noted in previous posts.  These people will help you succeed, but only if you work hard to allow them.

Even with open communication, the active group can be difficult to change.  You have to actively solicit bad news and drill into data to make sure it represents the truth.  For those who always want to bring good news, active coaching can help change their behavior.  For those who are being intentionally duplicitous, I suggest providing them an opportunity to find success in a different organization.


1. Sid - February 2, 2009

Chuck – Great blog! I think the difference between a good and great boss is effective communication from his/her staff. No surprises is the key to success!

2. Jim Demitriou - February 2, 2009

I used to have a saying with my staff when I ran a professional IT Services company:

“Bad news doesn’t age like wine … it ages like milk”.

Your blog is spot-on about removing the dysfunctional behavior of only reporting good news up the food chain while problems fester and grow.

Any true leader worth his/her salt should build a culture upon a transparency of information and trust … and that can be difficult when previous career experiences have already programmed your people. It’s just as much (if not more) work on the leader as it is on the staff.

3. Chuck Musciano - February 3, 2009

Jim, you make a good point about previous experiences affecting your current position. Although it can be difficult to let go of old practices, we need to encourage our people to come to our organizations with an open mind and a clean slate. Hardest of all, we need to do the same thing!

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