Getting bad news to the boss?

A recent exchange with a friend has been on my mind the past few days. She and many of her colleagues at the field level have concerns about management of their organization. They feel the people in charge are making poor decisions and not listening to the people on the ground. Recently she and around 50 of her colleagues participated in a short, all-employee meeting with the head of the organization. They believed this was the opportunity they needed to share their concerns with the boss and turn things around. The meeting happened. There was communication. Questions were asked and answers given. Everyone felt better, right? Hardly. Afterwards, several attendees wondered why hadn’t anyone had the courage to express their doubts and beliefs about the chief’s new policies? Why hadn’t they taken the elephants in the room and placed them on the table?

In a recent interview, Dan Tangherlini, administrator of the General Services Administration, talked about this problem not from the perspective of lower-graded employees in the organization but from his perspective as the top official. “The hardest thing in an organization like this is to get the bad news to the boss,” he says. “There are things he really needs to know as concerns can turn into issues, which turn into problems, which turn in to scandal. We want to get at them at the concern level.”

Getting Bad News to the BossWhat’s going on, here? Are bosses not getting important feedback from people throughout the organization? In my friend’s situation, why did they remain silent?  Surely there were several factors involved including fear of reprisal and being naturally conflict averse. The first understandable, the second useful at times. Is there anything wrong with how the meeting transpired? Maybe not. Before publicly delivering what we believe to be bad news to the top brass, we should stop and consider three things:

1. Reality. We each have our own distorted version of reality. Everyone. You, me, and the boss. When we believe a new policy to be a mistake, we are making an assumption based upon our own observations and biases, likely validated by those around us – our allies. Likewise a senior official’s decisions are based upon her own set of values and the influence of those within her circle. And without access to all the facts and factors pertinent to the policy, it is natural for us to be skeptical. In evaluating new strategies or policies it is vital we remain curious – that we seek other versions of reality and keep an open mind.

2. Audience. Who is the right authority figure to share our frustrations with? My friend assumed the top official was the right audience. If concerns had been raised and summarily ignored by first, the immediate supervisor and then subsequent mid-level managers, then going to top official is justified. Mr. GSA clearly believes there are bad-news filters in organizations. But I would not recommend bypassing the immediate supervisor and mid-level managers. They can help us understand the basis for decisions. If our concerns have merit, mid-level managers can become our allies and advocate for communication and course corrections.

3. Venue. An all-employee Q&A with the executive director may not be the right venue especially if she has ownership in the new policies. While all-employee meetings with upper-level officials are a good chance to get news from the boss they likely are not the best place to present problems and constructive criticism. In fact, public settings are not the best place to hit the boss with bad news. When confronting the decision-maker about what we believe to be her poor decision, we should probably do so in private. Think: praise in public, rebuke in private.

When we express our concerns with immediate supervisors, we may learn there is more to the issue than we understood. It’s possible we may find they share our concerns or doubts and we’re on the Road to Abilene. It’s also possible our combined realities may present a compelling case to the top official to pause and reconsider.

Before delivering bad news to the boss make sure there really is bad news. And if we truly believe it is, work that news up through the organization. When the top brass has it wrong and the bad news filters won’t allow her to receive the message, find the opportunity to discuss it with her in private or in writing.

Getting bad news to the boss may be one of the hardest things to do in an organization. What is being done within yours to fix the problem? What have you experienced and what do you recommend? Scroll down to “Leave a Reply” or “Leave a Comment,” and share your thoughts.


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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2 Responses to Getting bad news to the boss?

  1. Joanna W says:

    Nice challenge scenario Jimmy. I could be way off here based on the limited information you’ve provided about this friends’ scenario, but I’m going to venture to say this is potentially a failure of middle management. Is it really the employees responsibility to deliver bad news up the chain of command, or is it the responsibility of middle management to seek from their employees feedback, thoughts, concerns, potential issues when implementing new policies?

    Based on your scenario, why is it that the boss was holding an all employee meeting with such large elephants in the room? Why weren’t the elephants dealt with before such a high level meeting with the boss? Who’s fault is that? Is the boss recklessly implementing policies without asking the middle managers to implement it, which includes trying to obtain employee buy-in through communicating the issues, creating understanding, and being aware of potential pitfalls, i.e. bridging the reality gap? Or, are the middle managers simply not doing their job of communicating with their employees to obtain overall buy-in?

    Decisions made without buy-in has a much, much less chance of success, right? What facilitative processes are in place for obtaining employee buy-in to ensure that new policies and management decisions will be successful? Were they used? If yes, then why do we still have elephants in the room? Are the middle managers in this scenario REALLY communicating the need for the policy, and not only asking their employees for feedback, but creating a safe process for employees to give that feedback? For example, some employees will never give feedback in a group meeting. Is there enough one on one communication being initiated by the middle managers to get feedback from more than just the dominant people in the room?

    Middle managers are facilitators, they bridge the gap between upper management and the ground staff or subject matter experts. It certainly depends on the topic, intensity, etc, but if the middle managers aren’t currently and effectively soliciting feedback from employees, doesn’t that make it rather difficult for employees to give unsolicited feedback?

    • Jimmy says:

      Joanna W – great to get your feedback on this situation. You raise excellent questions and suggestions. I agree with your observations and would offer perhaps everyone has a piece of the mess – senior authority figures, middle managers and staff.

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