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7 reasons why your employees won’t tell you bad news

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Me, Guy Kawasaki and Robert Scoble by scriptingnews via FlickrThe problem: Employees not delivering bad news

Someone asked me today –

“If, for argument sake, a head waiter in a restaurant knows there is a problem but either can’t, won’t or fears telling the chef, would that reflect top-down management?

If not, what would you call a system that prevents workers, lower managers or civil servants  .  .   .  .  .  .  . from alerting upper management, problem solvers or decision makers?”

Answer: 7 reasons why an employee might withhold information

There 7  main reasons why a subordinate in an organization does not tell their boss bad news.

#1 Personality

We have different styles in the way we communicate.  Some people are open and blunt. Some are open and diplomatic.  Some are considerate yet complicated.

Some are just cagey and careful.

#2 History of the Relationship

The way we approach a relationship depends upon our basic personality but, of course, once we are in a working relationship with our boss, we have a history.

When we delivered bad news before, what happened?  When other people delivered bad news, what happened?

#3 Opportunity

Over and above our basic personalities and relationships, we need a time and place to deliver bad news.  Sometimes, we simply have no time as everyone rushes for the door to catch their transport home.

It’s good to have a relaxed casual place where people can bring up bad news, often sideways.   Not even the bravest wants to be shot for “being the messenger”.

#4 Understanding

Quite often, we don’t communicate bad news because we didn’t even notice that anything is wrong.  We walk past a problem, day-after-day, noticing nothing, because we are inexperienced juniors.

An experienced person might notice in a flash, but until we have the experience and training ourselves, we don’t  even notice.

#5 Compartments

Very often, work has been compartmentalized in a way that people doing the work are not responsible for it.  We are missing the skill, or the authority, or the resources, to get the job done.

We do what we can, but the person who holds the “key” is not there.  They don’t know what is happening.  Possibly,  they don’t care.  Above all, they might hold the answer but it is “not their job”.

# 6 Internal feedback

Management is often seen as giving orders, but in reality, management is about coordination.  Managers are feedback slurpers and digesters.  We have to notice what is happening, make sense of it, and replay events to people in judicious mix of summary, highlights and “next”.  If the management doesn’t watch key aspects of coordination, then coordination doesn’t happen.

The Toyota system attributes 80% of faults to poor coordination between work units (not the units themselves).  A customer might notice that something is amiss, for example, but none of the workers will notice because things are hunky-dory in their own section.  The only person, other than the customer who can notice poor coordination between work units is the person responsible for passing information between work units –the manager.

When a customer complains, the manager should initially, read the complaint as two work units are not dancing in step – and that happens from time-to-time – so fix, apologize to the customer and apologize to the work units.  Keep everyone sweet.

If more than once complaint seems to have the same cause – two work units getting out of step – have a look at the feedback we slurp, digest and render.  The problem is likely to be in what we attend to, and the sense we make of it.

# 7 Politics

And lastly, at the end of the day, employees aren’t guests.  We’ve made a deal part of which is on paper and part of which is in our heads.  The real deal is the political posturing to get a better deal.   The Hawthorne effect is famous for showing us that people care less about the money than they do about their relationship with us and with each other.

When it is not our structure or  our feedback slurping system that is at fault, we probably have a complicated political system where people have adjusted to each other like old married couples.  Stubbornness, and paying people back for perceived transgressions, becomes the goal.  Resetting such a system is hard work.  In the long term, people have to be given the opportunity to pursue goals that lead to flourishing rather than withering.  But, in the short term, groups rule, and there is little one can do except allocate more resources to keep the customers happy.

Possible people are just cross.  Solving that is a long term project.  If the organization has become inward-looking, we need a temporary “sticking plaster” of additional resources to solve pressing problems while we restore good humor.


I hope this list answers the question of why junior employees sometimes appear reluctant to pass on messages from customers that something around here needs to change.

  • They might be cagey individuals.
  • They know what happens to messengers who bring bad news.
  • They never have a chance to talk to their boss except during the press of daily work.
  • They didn’t understand a word that you said and are just smiling at you.
  • They would but they know how the system works.  Their boss doesn’t have the authority – someone else does and they don’t care.
  • They feel sort of offended. They do their job really well but they do their job.  They cannot see the whole picture because they have their heads down.  You need to speak to someone who sees the whole picture because that is their job.
  • Well, they could speak to their boss but actually they are not going to because it is more fun to pay him (or her) out for some perceived misdeed and settling scores has become thing “we do around here”.

Pray it is No 6.  It’s always easier to deal with something that is squarely “our fault.”  Or, to find someone in the system whose job it is to hold the whole picture in their heads.

Published in Business & Communities


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