When people are fearful or anxious, they sometimes manage those feelings by shading the truth in their reports to managers about the status of their work. In last week's post I began an exploration of behavioral patterns that can lead to a systematic bias in reporting the status of work underway. I described a pattern I call "too-mild objection." That pattern is one method some use to adapt their behavior to manage psychological risk.
Five patterns for misrepresenting status
Here are five more of those patterns. In what follows, I refer to the people providing Reports about obstacles using the names Rachel or Ronald.
- In this pattern, Rachel elects not to report the obstacle because she guesses (or knows) that news of the obstacle would be unwelcome. She fears that anyone who reports the obstacle might suffer unpleasant consequences, including, for example, being blamed for it. But since she does know about the obstacle, she wants to be certain that she can plausibly deny that she knew about it.
- By withholding what she knows, Rachel increases the risk that decision-makers have an inaccurate view of the situation. To deal with this risk, conduct frequent open meetings to elevate the probability that everyone knows what's happening — good and bad.
- Pretending to misunderstand
- To pretend Fear/Anxiety Bias is what results when we elect
not to report the true status of a situation, and
instead shade the truth or spin it in some way
to protect against unwelcome repercussionsthat he doesn't understand the request for updated status, Ronald relies on a keen sense of what his audience will believe. For example, in response to a request for a list of all items remaining to be addressed, Ronald replies with a list of "all the items I'm working on right now." He believes his audience will accept this response, at least for a time. Because he has concealed the truth, the people who receive Ronald's reports labor under a misimpression of the true situation.
- To deal with this pattern, make all requests ridiculously specific. For example, instead of "Please send me a list of all items remaining to be addressed," try, "Please send me a list of all items remaining to be addressed, whether or not you or anyone else is working on them and no matter how close they are to completion."
- Allowing time for miracles
- When Rachel wants time to allow for a miracle to occur, she stalls. She responds to no email message less than three days old. She rarely picks up the phone when someone calls. She responds only to voicemail, and then, only when it's at least a day old. She's a regular no-show at meetings, because she wants to avoid direct questions. When she is asked questions, her response is some form of "I'll have to get back to you." When pressed for an answer, she's vague. These tactics provide Rachel with delay. She's hoping that Fate will intervene and save her.
- These delaying tactics also defer Rachel's audience's finally understanding the truth of their situation.
- To deal with these tactics, include a deadline in every request. When you accumulate enough missed deadlines, you can initiate disciplinary action or if you can't do that, you can enlist the assistance of someone who can. As a last resort, you can find a way to reassign her. In the meantime, remove her from any critical path.
- Reporting conditions that provide safety
- Ronald is selective about the obstacles he reports. If he's responsible in any way for clearing an obstacle, he's reluctant to report it. But if the existence of a particular obstacle tends to relieve him of a responsibility, or makes it impossible for him to complete a task on time, he's more likely to report it. That is, he reports obstacles that tend to afford him some safety; he's less likely to report obstacles that create pressure on him.
- This selective reporting practice conveys a misimpression of the situation for Ronald's audience. They are therefor more likely to allocate resources in ways that don't serve the organization as well as they might.
- To deal with these tactics, distribute the responsibility for reporting obstacles. Relying on one individual to report all obstacles in a certain domain creates a risk that selective reporting will occur. By designating at least two people responsible for reporting a given class of obstacle, you create pressure on both to report on obstacles on an as-soon-as-you-know basis.
- Deflecting attention
- When all of Rachel's tactics have failed, and she finds it necessary to report an obstacle she'd rather not report, she can try deflecting attention. She can report the obstacle in a way that she believes will limit the risk of the consequences she fears. She can wait for a catastrophe to develop in some else's patch, or she can include her report within a larger report that covers a truly inflammatory situation. In this way, she can bury her bad news under something that will attract much more attention.
- The covering story need be neither new nor true. Or if true, it need not be fully developed — speculation will suffice. It can be merely a reminder of a previously identified issue that hasn't fully materialized. But what it must do is attract attention away from the truth.
- Watch for a pattern of these diversions in past reports. To avoid being taken in, be alert to the use of this tactic.
These tactics aren't the root cause of any organizational problem — they are symptoms. The root cause is that people don't feel psychologically safe. Work on creating safety, rather than addressing the tactics people feel compelled to use when they feel unsafe. First in this series Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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