Overcoming reluctance to bad news
Prepared by: Majed Abdeen
In one company I worked with, the GM told me "if you have bad news, fix it first, then don't even tell me about it". I believe that this approach doesn't contribute to problem-solving; it only postpones the problem. This is why I always encourage the team to do the opposite. "Shooting the messenger who brings bad news" is an approach common in many environments.
In my experience as a Project Manager, I always work closely with the team so that I can know more about the project status. In one of the software projects I worked on, I requested the IT department to take a backup on a daily basis, but unfortunately, one day, we encountered a big problem with the servers. We lost more than two months' work, and the IT guy told me that he didn't take an external backup as I had instructed. I followed the fix first, blame later approach (Meredith et al., 2015, p.468), because in my opinion, blaming will not solve the problem. We worked two consecutive days without leaving, until the whole team, working together, solved the problem. I saw the value of encouraging the team to share any bad news immediately; otherwise, we will face a more significant problem later.
Reluctance to share bad news is natural; stemming from good intentions - a desire to ensure other's happiness - or from lack of confidence/fear of termination. This behaviour creates complexity; information is withheld, unacknowledged, or postponed from sharing with Project Managers/upper-management. Thus, losses may be greater, problems exacerbated, and decision-makers unaware, due to reluctance to share (Smith & Keil, 2003, pp.69-70).
Reluctance occurs for various reasons, including uncertainty regarding the problem, difficulties with the estimation of work, undefined boundaries (Smith & Keil, 2003, p.71), the organisational environment, in addition to more personal issues such as fear/lacking confidence. Another aspect of reluctance is Hope-Creep, when team-members report they are on schedule while they are not (Wysocki, 2014, p.34). Understanding reluctance enables Project Managers to prevent it; Smith & Keil (2003, pp.71,73) provide a beneficial model, though they note upper-management receptiveness is crucial. Bad news happens not only by chance during the project but can be set up to happen due to deliberately over/under-estimating to achieve a set personal objective (PMI, 2014, p.14).
Project Management Strategic Approach
Monitoring and Controlling allows Project Managers to review and regulate project performance, identify changes, corrective actions (PMI, 2017, p.613). Controlling the project is complex, Project Managers must identify when to exert control, on what, and how (Meredith et al., 2015, p.471). However, Project Managers must be careful not to create a negative environment or to seem inaccessible. Control can be exerted on activities, but not people; PMBOK notes Project Managers control processes, scope, quality, etc., but they monitor stakeholders (PMI, 2017, p.614). Controlling people creates a negative environment contributing to reluctance.
Change is inevitable (PMI, 2017, p.168) but not necessarily negative; some stakeholders are resistant (Burchell, 2011, pp.20-21), thus using a Change Management System (CMS) reduces negativity. Ibbs et al. (2001, p.159) identify five key CMS principles. Implementing these at the strategy level ensures team-members understand and accept changes, thus are encouraged and supported to raise negative and positive issues (Ibbs et al., 2001, p.160). Likewise, a CMS helps to reassure upper management and stakeholders regarding the changes (Patanakul, 2014, p.30), ensuring a positive environment.
Management must support a collaborative environment, effective communication, maintain transparency and establishing a PMO to oversee projects and review activities (Patanakul, 2014, p.31). Management involvement creates an environment where sharing is encouraged; thus, staff will be less reluctant. Work performance reports, including Earned Value Analysis help management to oversee performance (PMI, 2017, p.112), taking corrective actions immediately without waiting for the bad news.
Dealing with Individuals
In addition to putting strategic Monitoring and Controlling processes in-place, organisations must encourage a collaborative environment when dealing with individuals. Many organisations establish blame culture ("shoot-the-messenger"); individuals believe they will be blamed for bad news thus do not feel obligated to report it, or they feel pressure to hide it (Smith & Keil, 2003, pp.89-90).
Project Managers must ensure accuracy of the information reported by staff; spot-checks of status-reports can assist with this (Wysocki, 2014, p.34). Some managers use a time-pressure method to encourage employees to report bad news early; criticism of this includes staff becoming used to false alarms (Smith & Keil, 2003, p.87).
Proper leadership including active-listening, emotional-intelligence, interpersonal/team skills create an environment where staff feels no reluctance to report. Problems should be fixed prior to placing blame (Meredith et al., 2015, p.468). When placing blame, it must be done constructively through good leadership to ensure staff feel supported and improved; maintaining the positive environment where staff do not feel reluctance to share bad news.
Burchell, J., 2011. Anticipating and managing resistance in organisational technology (IT) change initiatives. International Journal of the Academic Business World, 5(1), pp.19-28.
Ibbs, C. W., Wong, C. K. & Kwak, Y. H., 2001. Project Change Management System. Journal of Management in Engineering, 17(3), pp.159-165.
Meredith, J. R., Samuel J. Mantel, J. & Shafer, S. M., 2015. Project Management: A Managerial Approach. 9th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Patanakul, P., 2014. Managing large-scale IS/IT projects in the public sector: Problems and causes leading to poor performance. Journal of High Technology Management Research, 25(1), p.21–35.
PMI, 2014. Navigating Complexity: A PRACTICE GUIDE. Newtown Square(Pennsylvania): Project Management Institute, Inc.
PMI, 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 6th ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.
Smith, H. J. & Keil, M., 2003. The reluctance to report bad news on troubled software projects: a theoretical model. Information Systems Journal, 13(1), p.69–95.
Wysocki, R. K., 2014. Effective Project Management: Traditional, Agile, Extreme. 7th ed. Indiana: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.