Put an End to Problems Exploding onto Your Desk

In my work as an executive coach I often hear leaders complain about not hearing about problems until they explode on their desk. “Why didn’t they come to me before it was such a mess?”

Leaders like to blame employees for not coming forward and purposefully hiding information that is detrimental to the company.  But employees don’t hide things for the reasons we think.  In this case, it isn’t them, it’s you and you have the power to change it.

Why bad news gets buried

I asked employees why they chose not to get help or point out an impending problem at work. I have summarized their responses in to categories:

  • I was afraid I would be judged negatively
  • I thought I would be punished
  • I didn’t want to make the boss angry
  • I wanted to look competent by fixing it myself
  • I didn’t realize it was that big of a problem
  • I over-estimated my ability to handle it
  • I under-estimated the clients’ expectations
  • I didn’t want the problem added to my plate to fix

None of the responses I received indicated that an employee wouldn’t share bad news because he/she was purposefully trying to undermine the company.  They were either self-preservation (not getting in trouble or being given more work) or self-promoting (trying to make themselves look good).

How to keep bad news from being buried

Having bad news shared to the appropriate level starts by setting the expectation and creating a culture where it is safe and rewarded to do so.  There are a few foundational questions you need to answer for your team:

  • Why is it important to escalate problems early?
  • What type of information should be escalated?
  • What is the appropriate way to escalate concerns/issues/problems?
  • When should a problem be escalated?
  • What do I do if I don’t know what to do?

Answering these questions will provide guidelines so your team knows what to do and when to do it.  But that is only half of the equation.  How you respond to receiving bad news will dictate if your team follows the expectations you provided or not.

These are some common mistakes I have seen leaders make that cause employees to hide problems for as long as they can:

  • Asking why/how something happened before helping to fix it
  • Punishing – passive/aggressively or directly
  • Shooting the messenger/Scapegoating
  • Throwing someone under the bus (i.e. publicly placing blame)
  • Wishing a former team member was still around to “do things right”
  • Showing disgust

It is your responsibility to create a culture of mutual respect to help your team escalate problems appropriately.  Consider implementing one or more of the following ideas:  

  • Treat mistakes as learning opportunities
  • Provide problem solving training
  • Once a problem is solved, create protocols for next time
  • Check-in about feelings of being overwhelmed or bored
  • If you find something is being avoided, have a conversation to learn why

The more people there are between you and the client, the higher the likelihood that bad news is being filtered out before it reaches you.  Make yourself available to your frontline employees and be willing to listen to them. There is always one or two who will step up and tell you how things are if you really want to know.

As always, I wish you the MOST from your potential!

Doc Robyn

Dr. Robyn Odegaard (aka “Doc Robyn”) is internationally known conflict resolution expert, motivational speaker, executive coach and corporate trainer.  As CEO of Champion Performance Development, she works with executives, professionals, athletes, and coaches to help them achieve excellence in all aspects of life through active leadership, powerful teamwork, effective communication, Productive Conflict™ and professional disagreement skills.  She is the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign and author of the books Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams and The Ultimate Guide to Handling Every Disagreement Every Time.  To work with her one-on-one, have her present to your team, request a custom workshop or invite her to speak at your event, email her at DocRobyn@ChampPerformance.com or call 302-307-3091.

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