Bad news doesn’t flow up

Information doesn’t flow up in a hierarchy, something no manager can have failed to notice. There are a whole host of individual reasons why people don’t like to push it up and when added together they throttle the flow.

Bad news in particular doesn’t flow up, for the good reason that people think the manager will shoot the messenger and they don’t want to get shot.

  • There’s the example where the manager has pushed for a particular project or way of working, possibly against some resistance from the team. If the team discover some real problems, when they actually get to work on the project, then they know full well that if they push the problems up the line then this will be seen as a continuation of the resistance. It may or may not be, and the people may or not be the same as those previously resisting, but that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist.
  • A follow on from this is where there is only one person who pushes the bad news up and the rest of the team don’t. Many managers take this as the rest of the team denying the problems. In fact the fear of pushing bad news up is so strong that many people will go so far as to deny it exists when asked point blank about it. So the one person who does do it has their viewpoint dismissed. They can then be labelled as a misfit, a stirrer, who is out of step with the rest of the team and marked down for behavioural adjustment or elimination. Ironic when they may in fact be the one person with their eyes wide open and saying what they see.
  • When the bad news is about a person, particularly another manager, then too often loyalty outweights rationality. This can lead to some people being viewed as ‘protected’ and bad news about them is supressed.
  • Of course, sometimes the bad news is about a mistake and owning up to a mistake brings with it a whole set of difficulties. What some managers fail to realise is that it takes a huge effort for someone to come to them and admit a mistake. If it isn’t handled sensitively, very sensitively, then future mistakes are either hidden or downplayed.
  • There are plenty of people who would willingly tell their manager every bit of bad news but they don’t because they don’t think there is any point because nothing will be done about it. In an organisation with paralysed or ineffectual managers then this effect compounds the problems as it makes the managers isolated from below.

Despite these blockages, information still tries to flow up but with the path directly above blocked it has to find another route. There are a variety of these – the sympathetic manager of a different area or the colleagues in another team. Unfortunately a different path means the content is diluted and the message is often lost.

If you want to hear the bad news then you need to build up a reputation as to how you deal with it. Some simple tips:

  • Don’t shoot the messenger, even if you are certain they are a lying, conniving manipulator.
  • Don’t dismiss the bad news, always examine it rationally, investigate if needed and make a measured judgement.
  • Either do something about it, or explain to people why you are not going to.
  • If you are facing someone owning up to a mistake then just imagine how you feel when you have to do the same thing to your manager. Everyone makes mistakes.

This way you might hear some remarkable things.

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