Phil Friedman

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Why Management Doesn't Get Bad News Until It's Too Late

Why Management Doesn't Get Bad News Until It's Too Late==

Before Writing Comes Thinking


Preface:  A longer version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn, where it accumulated in excess of 11,000 views and more than 400 likes and comments. It is adapted here to be of use to small-business managers and owners.

I work primarily in the yacht and commercial vessel construction sector. I mention this so you can understand the context in which I make these remarks, namely, one in which major, long-duration, high-dollar projects are the order of the day.

In that context, one of multi-million dollar projects, it is critical to assure a continual flow of accurate information from line-foremen and project-managers to upper level managers and ownership, concerning the status of projects in process. Yet, my experience is that, almost invariably, bad news concerning how a project is tracking doesn't get to upper level management, until it is too late to do anything about it .

You don't have to be a nuclear physicist (or an MBA) to understand why this is the case...

Nobody "on the line" in a long-duration project likes to pass bad news upward even a day sooner than he or she is forced to. If a project's schedule is slipping badly, or its budget being depleted at too high a rate, everyone "on the line" (supervisors, foremen, mid-managers) expects there will be hell to pay. The only question in all of their minds is for how long.

If at the 50% completion mark of a project with a one-year duration, the project or production manager reports his or her serious concern about eventual outcome, everyone will have to live with teeth gnashing and daily exhortations to do better -- for six months. On the other hand, if the line supervisor or middle manager waits until the last month of the project, when it will be impossible to ignore the problems, the reaction will no doubt be worse. But the pain caused by disclosure will last for only a month or so, as executive management's attention is by then likely to be drawn to the next project.

If we're talking about a project with a two- or three-year duration, the temptation to extemporize is even greater. Surely, the self-justification goes, we can crash the schedule and remedy the slippage. Surely, we can cut some better deals on materials, and make up the developing deficit. Surely we can grab some more revenue by up-pricing the change orders that will inevitably come in. Surely. Surely. Surely.

Hope springs eternal... and provides psychological rationalization for not giving the boss the bad news any earlier than one is forced to...

So how do you deal with this, when you have bottom-line responsibility, yet depend on the flow of information you receive from subordinates? First and foremost, recognize the human realities of the situation . Then develop and follow a modus operandi that encourages, rather than discourages subordinates when it comes to giving you bad news. In particular:

—  Never kill the messenger. If you allow yourself to vent frustration and disappointment on the person who brings a developing problem to your attention, nobody will.

—  Always ask specific questions. If the core of your project status review meeting consists of "So, how are we doin' guys?", the answer will almost always be "Doin' great, boss!" Instead ask questions like, "Have we completed the installation of the main propulsion system 100%?"

—  Make it a habit to follow up initial broad questions with several more detailed and specific ones. Even if the answer to the above question is yes, do not leave it at that. Instead, follow up with something like, "Does that mean the engines are fully mounted? The transmissions coupled up? The propeller shafts and bearings all in?

—  Do not wait for major milestone dates to arrive before asking for project status information. Treat every duration between milestones as if it were a project in itself, with the upcoming milestone as the terminal date. This minimizes the tendency for people to think they have plenty of time to make up for schedule slippage and budget overrun.

—  Do not throw fits when you get bad news. No matter how you're really feeling, keep a calm outward appearance and concentrate on developing with your subordinates workaround plans to pick up production progress, and cost-containment measures to stem the budget bleeding. Maintain an air of, "We're all in this together", not one of, "Get this straightened out, or get ready to hit the road!"

—  Do not rely entirely on your line- and project-managers to evaluate project status. Discipline yourself to spend some time every week on the production floor, in order to see for yourself what is happening and what isn't. This assumes, of course, that you understand what you're looking at when you're on the production floor...which, in the sector I work in, you most likely do...or you wouldn't be where you are.

None of these suggestions will be entirely new to you. Indeed, you can probably add several more to the list on your own. These suggestions are, however, worthwhile to refresh in one's mind from time to time, because they are too easily forgotten, or at least ignored in the day-to-day press of issues and problems . And by following them religiously you can avoid getting the bad news after it is too late to do anything about it.  Phil Friedman

Author's notes: The truly beautiful sailing cutter you see above is a Puffin Model, with photo included by permission of Dutch ShipYard in the Netherlands. Neither the yacht, nor the shipyard has anything to do with the substance of this post. I just thought it might lift your spirits, as it does mine, to see this magnificent sailing yacht.

If you found this article of value, you may want to take a look at some of my other writing about small business operations, management, and marketing:

"Small Businessman's Primer to Inbound Marketing"

"Selling Bull Chips in a Bag"

"Maximizing Throughput on Fixed Assets and Overheads"

"Small Businesses Need to Keep a Close Eye on Gross Profit"

And if you would like to discuss marketing or other issues you face in your small business, email or message me to arrange for a free, no-obligation 1/2-hour initial consult.

To receive notifications of my writings on a regular basis, click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.

Feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other LinkedIn articles — whether on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. I ask only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to the original work.

If you are interested in yachts, are allied with the yacht building industry, or operating a small business in another sector, you should consider joining my beBee Hive,

THE PORT ROYAL GROUP for Yacht Builders, Buyers and Owners

where you will find experienced industry professionals discussing a wide range of topics. The ongoing conversation is always interesting, informative, and 100% industry insider.

About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.


The (optional to read) pitch: At, we help you improve your reasoning skills and thinking abilities, and as a matter of course, thereby help you improve the quality of your writing. Instruction is handled directly by yours truly, both over the internet and in person, both one-on-one and in small supportive groups.

For more information, click on the image above.  And to arrange for a free 1/2-hour consult, call or email

Text Copyright 2016 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
Images:, Dutch ShipYard, and Port Royal Group

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Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #16

Thank you, Larry, for sharing this piece. Problems are like past due bills: the longer you wait to deal with them, the harder it gets to.remediate the matter. A manager who makes it clear he or she wants to hear only good news soon finds him- or herself standing alone, wondering why the lights are off. Cheers!

Larry Boyer, 🐝 Brand Ambassador

Leaders need to foster an environment where staff can share bad news so it can be addressed.

Larry Boyer, 🐝 Brand Ambassador

You've summed it so well Phil Friedman. It's up to a leader to foster an environment where bad news can be shared.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #13

Thank you, Gert Scholtz, for reading and for the kind words. As a manager, if you take credit for the accomplishments of your team, you also have to take responsibilities for its problems. And if you want your team to watch your back, you have to cover their butts as well -- certainly, at least to the extent of treating them fairly and not punishing those who have the gumption to bring developing problems to your attention. Cheers!

Gert Scholtz

Gert Scholtz

3 years ago #12

Phil Friedman This is a great post Phil. You highlight what I think is a very important point of departure when problems arise - not to shoot the messenger and to see it as "our" problem which will be addressed and solved jointly.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #11

Thank you for stirring and sharing this one again., Franci. I think it's one of the most important pieces I've ever done on business.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #10

Thank you, Claire, for the kind words. The ironic thing about shoot-the-messenger bosses is that they discourage the people around them from trying to keep them out of trouble. As counter-productive as anything I've seen in business. Cheers!

Franci 🐝Eugenia Hoffman, beBee Brand Ambassador

Problems are going to occur and it's a good idea to expect (not accept), and plan ahead. Good advice Phil Friedman.

Claire L Cardwell

Claire L Cardwell

3 years ago #8

Phil Friedman - another great post! I had too many 'shoot the messenger' style bosses whilst I toiled in the Corporate world... It was only when I reached the FT where you were expected to own up to mistakes and brainstorm solutions before the shit hit the fan...

Wayne Yoshida

Wayne Yoshida

4 years ago #7

Yes. George Santayana said those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Wayne Yoshida

Wayne Yoshida

4 years ago #6

Phil - exactly. It is important to know most customers (or maybe 90 to 99 percent) are "OK" with delays and mistakes, since we are all humans and these things happen. But always have something in place to fix the issue, provide status reports before the customer asks, and satisfy the customer in the end.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

4 years ago #5

#2 You know, guys, it's ironic that Kevin mentions LBJ in this context. Because it was bad information fed back or lack of good information that sucked LBJ into the Vietnam war to begin with. And why the conflict continued for so many years and at such a high cost in blood on both sides, as first LBJ, then RMN were led to believe that "victory" was just around corner. The parallels are stunning. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

4 years ago #4

Thanks, Wayne, for reading and sharing this. And for the kind words. You are correct that it isn't so much that mistakes get made and problems rise up (for that is part of life) but really a matter of how we deal with them. And without honest information being fed back to upper-level execs, the battle is lost. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

4 years ago #3

Thanks, Kevin, for reading and sharing. It's too easy, I think, to blame line managers and workers for the failure to communicate bad news up the information pipeline. And if bad news isn't reaching the exec level timely, it is very often the fault of the executives involved and the atmosphere they create. Cheers!

Wayne Yoshida

Wayne Yoshida

4 years ago #2

Excellent, Phil Friedman -- above all -- the entire team must build trust. And trust comes from honesty. I worked at a place where everyone had good intentions, but only reported what they thought what we wanted to hear. This went as far as lying to management about how great things were going. And then something slips. And the lie is passed to the customer as defense to the cause of the delays and human mistakes. And we discover the lie much later. Poof. There goes the trust in the team forever. Very share-able advice for everyone and anyone.

Kevin Pashuk

Kevin Pashuk

4 years ago #1

This reminded me of an anecdote I heard years ago about the Presidency of LBJ during the Vietnam War. Apparently he did not react very well to bad news, so those 'messengers' took it upon themselves to not deliver any (until it was too late). As a leader, our reaction to bad news is as important as what we do about the situation. Another great post Phil.

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