Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 33;   August 13, 2008: Conflicts of Interest in Reporting

Conflicts of Interest in Reporting

by

Last updated: May 16, 2019

Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts. Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading and unreliable reports.

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.

Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launch

Ice on the launch pad on January 28, 1986, the day of the last Challenger Launch (STS-51-L). The unusually cold weather was well beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals of the solid rocket boosters were approved, and it most likely caused the O-ring failure. In meetings on the night before the launch, Morton Thiokol engineers and engineering managers confronted the problem. One of the candidate solutions was to recommend that the launch be scrubbed. Another was to recommend launch despite the weather. Lower level engineers and their managers could not come to an agreement, and in the end, in an example of "covering conflict," the lower level engineers were overruled. See Howard S. Schwartz, Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay, New York University Press, 1992. (Order from Amazon.com) Photo by Michael Hahn, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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 efforts
unknown 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Stonewalling: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Soldiers of IX Engineering Command, U.S. Army Air Force, putting down a Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) Runway at an Advanced Landing Ground under construction somewhere in France following the Normandy Landings of World War IIManagement Debt: I
Management debt, like technical debt, arises when we choose paths — usually the lowest-cost paths — that lead to recurring costs that are typically higher than alternatives. Why do we take on management debt? How can we pay it down?
Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceKinds of Organizational Authority: the Informal
Understanding Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found in organizations. Here's Part II of a little catalog of authority, emphasizing informal authority.
Abraham Lincoln as a young man about to become a candidate for U.S. SenateWorkplace Politics and Integrity
Some see workplace politics and integrity as inherently opposed. One can participate in politics, or one can have integrity — not both. This belief is a dangerous delusion.
The freshman class of the 2012 U.S. CongressSocial Entry Strategies: II
When we first engage with a group at work, we employ social entry strategies to make places for ourselves to carry out our responsibilities, and to find enjoyment and fulfillment at work. Here's Part II of a little catalog of social entry strategies.
RaspberriesHuman Limitations and Meeting Agendas
Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.

See also Workplace Politics and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Representative Don Young, Republican of AlaskaComing June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
Filling a form in hardcopyAnd on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.