Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 18;   April 29, 2020:

Intentionally Misreporting Status: II


When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. Reporting the real situation can be so difficult, in part, because of fear, ambition, and self-delusion.
The lies inside the truth

Falsely negative reports and falsely positive reports are very different beasts. Because the vast majority of false status reports are falsely positive or falsely optimistic, let me first address falsely negative status reports. Then we can set them aside.

Falsely negative status reports are reports that shade the truth in a direction disfavored by the reports' recipients. In my experience, I've never witnessed an executive, a manager, or a project manager report intentionally falsely negative status for his or her own efforts. To do so would only invite criticism of the report's author. In my experience, falsely negative reports are rarely delivered through the usual channels. They're almost always delivered informally, confidentially, and rarely in writing. Falsely negative reports are almost always elements of campaigns intended to harm the careers of political rivals, or to transfer responsibility for failure from the author to someone else.

Nevertheless, those upon whom truthfully negative or disappointing status reports reflect poorly often assert that those status reports are inaccurate or false. It's usually a reasonable tactic for them to try. But when the author of the report has overall responsibility for the work in question, accusing that author of making a falsely negative report is an odd and puzzling tactic, because the author has little to gain and much to lose by reporting falsely that his or her own project is troubled.

So with the exception of their use in political warfare, falsely negative reports are of little interest. Let me now turn to falsely positive status reports.

Among false The temptation to shade a status
report in the favorable direction
can be as strong for the author
as it is harmful to the enterprise
status reports, the field of falsely positive status reports is by far the more fertile. Falsely positive reports are reports that shade the truth in the direction favored by the recipients. The temptation to shade the report in the favorable direction can be as strong for the author as it is harmful to the enterprise. Because the author's superiors can be just as susceptible to temptation as the author of the report, even when status report authors can resist temptation, they might be directed by their superiors to file a falsely positive report.

To understand these temptations, begin by surveying possible motivations. Among the usual motivations for shading status reports are fear, ambition, and self-delusion.

Fear might arise from the speculation, "If I report the awful truth, they'll kill the messenger — me." And so, to "manage" the risk of messenger killing, the author reports what the author believes the recipients want to hear.
If you work in an organization in which people fear reporting the truth, decision makers probably have a very distorted view of reality. The distortion arises from misinformation they receive from anyone who has been punished for delivering disappointing news, and from anyone who has witnessed such punishment. Even worse, "killing messengers" increases risk aversion in the subject population to such an extent that people decline to take even the most reasonable risks. [Brenner 2001] The result is a reshaping of the organization into a configuration that's unreasonably risk-averse. Moreover, managers can't manage the organization properly because their understanding of the organization's situation is incorrect.
Excessive ambition might lead to the hope that, "If I embellish the good, or conceal the bad, I might harvest some goodies and move on before they learn the truth." And so, to advance their careers as quickly as possible, the authors of some falsely positive status reports make their own output seem far better than it is by lying about it.
The consequences of this misrepresentation include some that are similar to the consequences of fear. For example, as a result of ambition-driven status reporting, management acquires a false sense of the state of the organization.
But it gets worse. As a result of the ambitions of authors of falsely positive status reports, management also acquires a false sense of who the top performers are. Because of this false sense, they misallocate responsibility and resources, promoting people who should be discharged, discharging people who should be promoted, and funding the wrong projects. With a greater share of the organizational power and resources in the control of ambitious liars, the future of the organization becomes increasingly clouded.
Self-delusion — believing that reality will inevitably conform to one's preferences — might tempt some to report falsely positive status. This temptation might arise from the belief that "If I embellish the good or conceal the bad, reality might catch up to my falsely positive report before anyone realizes the report was false." And so, to avoid accountability, unpleasantness, or "emergency review" meetings, or to create joy in their superiors' minds, report authors report what they think and fervently hope will become true real soon now.
Sometimes this approach works. When it does work, the benefit gained is minor, because no one ever becomes aware of catastrophes that don't happen. The recipients of the falsely positive report are unimpressed when the project catches up to the report, because they had been led to expect it. "Ho-hum" is their response.
But when this approach fails, it fails spectacularly. People ask questions: "What went wrong?" or, "I thought you said it was working, what happened?" Or, the dreaded, "When did you find out it wasn't working?" And "Why didn't you tell us immediately?" One lie leads to another and another and soon the subterfuge is revealed. The authors of such reports are lucky if they can remain in their jobs.

Even if you don't personally succumb to any of these temptations, remaining in an organization where these patterns are common can be a high-risk decision, because they threaten management effectiveness. If your supervisor directs you to report false positive status, you might have little choice but to comply, but recognize that the health of the enterprise is questionable. An early exit from the organization is advisable if you can find a way to make it happen in an acceptable manner. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: New Virtual Meetings for Teams  Next Issue

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[Brenner 2001]
Richard Brenner. "Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger," Point Lookout blog, November 7, 2001. Available here. Back

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