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Management Will Assess Me Badly if I Bring Bad News (Anti-pattern)

Or “I Can't Say That … It's Ranking Time!”


General awareness from all levels of supervisor. Coaches also need to flag this when they see it.


When ranking systems are in place great care needs to be taken to ensure that there is a free flow of information. The problem is that people will want to be seen in a good light by the person ranking them This becomes particularly an issue when it is time to rank folks but there is a general awareness across the board. People are reluctant to bring (bad) news to the supervisor because they “know” (note: this is a perception and may or may not be actually true) the supervisor doesn't want to hear about this news. Sometimes they will simply not tell the supervisor the news. Worse, many subordinates will actually make bad news good in order to appear better to their supervisor.

It is interesting that, if a supervisor is asked “Does this kind of thing happen in this other person's organization?” the answer is inevitably “yes”. But when asked “Does this happens in your organization?” the answer is typically “no” with lots of good reasons (eg “There is never a problem with my people speaking up”, “I have a great team”, “I encourage both good and bad messages”, …) The problem is that most supervisors think this way but, let's face it, they are not in a position to easily see this happen.


Good, up-to-date information is required to make good decisions. If supervisors are expected to make good decisions they need good information, both good and bad. If supervisors are expected to solve organizational problems, they need to be aware of the problems in its context, without sugar coating.

While I don't have a reference for the study (one day I'll find the original) Yoshida found that “even though 100% of front-line problems were known to the front-line employees, only 74% were known to team leaders, 9% to middle management and just 4% to top management!” This is called the "Iceberg of Ignorance" by some.

While I have no clue what the percentages are, or even if they are in the right range (since I don't know the source of the study) I think it is safe to say that we can recognize the problem.

Bottom line is that if this problem is not addressed, then we will jeopardize the transformation to the new way of working as transparency and flow of information are vital to improving business outcomes.

(Potential) Remedies

Many supervisors feel like the best way to resolve this is to just say “tell me everything, good and bad”. But that doesn't really work because their people “know” they are being ranked against others and so the rational behavior for them is to cover bad news up.

In the absence of changing / eliminating the ranking system, the best way to address improve the situation is a long hard slog for supervisors. Basically they have to gemba to the real place of work, ask powerful questions about what they are seeing, work directly with the people affected to work those issues, and continuously reinforce this mode of working. In other words this is about walking the talk of servant-leadership, gemba, personal transparency and humility - the lean-agile leadership approach.

The first time someone is blamed for bad news will be the last time you will hear bad news.


Title is exactly what I heard on a more than one occasion from senior people I work with in the transformation. Other versions:

  • “I can't say that to X. Its ranking time.”
  • “X won't want to hear that - we need to make it more positive.”
  • “How do we present this in a positive light?”
  • “X is only interested in Y - we need to somehow present our position so that we are addressing Y.”

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/home/hpsamios/ · Last modified: 2020/06/02 14:22 by