We usually rely on those responsible for organizational efforts to report the status of those efforts. Whether the reports are special or routine, the potential for conflict of interest is clear: the reporter-manager has incentives to report or emphasize good news, and incentives to withhold or soften bad news.
The difficulties directly created by this conflict of interest are compounded by time skews between the choices and consequences for the reporter-managers. The incentives and disincentives relative to reporting tend to arrive very soon, even when the successes and failures arrive much later. This increases the temptation to shade reports, because the reporter-managers can convince themselves that the problems will be solved over time. Sadly, things often get worse, because the forces that created the problems usually remain in place.
Inaccurate reporting isn't always the result of malice. Here are some of the sources of conflict of interest in reporting.
- Distributed control
- Most of those we hold responsible for organizational efforts aren't actually in control of those efforts. Typically, they're managers, and the people who do the actual work also affect the outcome. Those who do the actual work might or might not be subordinate to the reporter-manager. When they aren't, the reporter-manager's influence on them might be diminished.
- Covering conflict
- It's common to interpret conflict between team members, or between the reporter-manager and team members, as a leadership failure by the reporter-manager. When the reporter-manager cannot convince a team to take a position favored by higher authority, there is a temptation to make a so-called executive decision, overruling the team, and report upward that all is well.
- External commitments
- The people who do the actual work might have external obligations of unscheduled nature. Family situations arise, or mandated training occurs, or other competitive activities appear. When the cause of a delay is beyond the control of the reporter-manager, acknowledging the situation entails acknowledging limits to one's power. Reporter-managers therefore have an incentive to conceal or under-report such delays.
- The unknown
- When the Most of those we hold
responsible for organizational
efforts aren't actually in
control of those effortsunknown nature of the task suddenly creates problems, the reporter-manager has an incentive not to report them, because to do so is to acknowledge an imperfect ability to predict the unknown.
- The role of champion
- Special problems arise when the reporter-manager or the report recipient is the champion of the effort. Bad news can reflect not only on the management and leadership skills of the reporter-manager, but also on the validity of the idea itself. Bad news can threaten the champion's career; good news can create career opportunities. If the recipient of the report is also the supervisor of the reporter-manager, this effect is intensified by the career ambitions of the reporter-manager.
A "dual-key" approach — multiple parallel reporting roles — can help. When reporters know that Truth is readily available through other parallel channels, they're more likely to deliver Truth themselves. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.