Too scared to tell the truth

I am sure most of you have witnessed at your organization or during your tenure as PM on a large, visible project, the reluctance to pass bad news to you or your PM until things hit the ceiling. As a PM , nothing is more scarier than not knowing the real status of the project until when the deadline appears. I was interested to know, what should the PM do to encourage team members to report back honest status to the PM and above. I found this interesting article in LinkedIn that talks about just this topic.

According to author following are some of the ways that PM’s can deal with this issue

1. Don’t shoot the messenger- Encourage team members to be forthright about issues and risks that they see to timelines. The attitude of PM should be that of a shared responsibility (we are a team), rather than threaten team members.

2. Meaningful status meetings- Status meetings should be more of a question answer session rather than the usual “what is the status and blockers” line. Advanced (specific) questioning on individual deliverable will yield more than the “it’s all OK boss” response.

3. Understanding the technology – Knowing a little about the underlying technology implemented in the project will help PM’s do some advanced questioning or additional probing of individual deliverable. In my opinion, this will also help the PM’s to be more tightly integrated with the team. I know some PM’s that prefer to stick to scheduling and plan management and they end up siloed.

4. Each milestone is a project – The author in the LinkedIn article recommends to treat every duration between milestones as if it were a project in itself, with the upcoming milestone as the terminal date. This minimizes the tendency for people to think they have plenty of time to make up for schedule slippage and budget overrun.

As one of the comments on the author’s article sums it up – This takes a kind, humble, yet confident and assertive leader. Employees won’t be scared of the PM’s wrath, but will rather not want to disappoint the PM.

How do you engage peers and team members to be honest and proactive in communicating risks about the project?
How do you coordinate and communicate bad news about the project to your superiors?


12 thoughts on “Too scared to tell the truth

  1. It seems that a company’s culture has a lot to do with employees’ reluctance to convey bad news. If your management team uses fear as a tool to control the populace it’s going to be unlikely that you’ll get realistic feedback when something’s gone awry. If you’re able to nurture a culture based on growth and development while keeping in mind that the whole team is responsible for your successes, and your failures, you’re going to receive much more valuable feedback on your shortcomings. The key is in employee engagement. If the team feels like they have some skin in the game they’ll be much more likely to do what it takes to pull off a successful project.

  2. I would be inclined to agreed with the above comment about the company’s culture having much to do with one’s ability to speak freely. This is especially true when reporting the status of a project or important deadlines when the results are less than positive. My current organization is very focused on the numbers behind everything. This includes how much did you spend, what’s our estimated completion rate, and what the impact on the estimated date of completion. I believe we could alleviate that by listening to rule number two “Meaningful a Status Meetings”. Often time there is no one person or incident to blame for a hiccup or failure in the project. In my company, often times budgets or time frames fall behind as a result of multiple things that have occurred. The individual reporting this to the PM may feel more comfortable speaking freely about what has happened and ways in which to improve, if the focus remained on having a worthwhile, beneficial, meeting, instead of focusing on numbers.

  3. While I do agree with Damion’s point about company culture, I also think it is up to the project manager to create his/her own culture within the project team. If the company culture creates a tense environment where people do not want to own up to mistakes, then the project manager need to explain that not speaking up early on will only cause more problems within the team. I think this coincides with the first point of not shooting the messenger. I think the biggest point I take away from this is having meaningful status meetings. Asking deeper questions in a non accusing manner will help get some of the real answers/concerns from the team. I think this is something that I can learn to do better (even though I am not a project manager) when I collaborate with others.

  4. This is a deep post. There is more about creating a culture that accepts honest and open critisism about a poorly performing project, as well as the ability for team members to tap into that culture to make proactive / thoughtful decisions on the status of a project that is failing or delayed. I agree with you that most meetings are about blocking and tackling those items that are delaying or causing the project to fail, but the meeting members are the ones that give direction to that meeting. By embracing your mistakes the team can easily understand the schedule, but they do not have to accept it. This is the approach I have taken. I have chosen to always be honest about projects, and instead of delivering bad news I ensure that the communications are both to the team and to myself. This way it is not me dropping off something bad and running away from it, I own the issue and work with team to ensure it completed to our expectations. If this is unacceptable I do not blame others, but I look at how I can improve the communications between the two groups (the team and management) to ensure that future interactions are embedded on a deeper level of trust and understanding.

  5. My method is the “rip off the bandaid” approach. From a project managee’s perspective, I can honestly say that I prefer not to soften the blow at all. The project managers I have worked with in the past have always preferred getting straight answers, so we could get to the business of resolving the problem and moving on. Even though my work culture is one that is generally not accepting of bad news, I find that ultimately, the leadership team prefers the honest truth. I’m fortunate that most of the leadership has been around a while, so they can appreciate the honesty. Now, that’s not to say the leadership team wants to hear a pessimist or a complainer. However, if you give good insight and constructive ideas on how to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again, they are most appreciative.

  6. These are really good takeaways from the article. What I have noticed working in the research and development side of the business is that there is tremendous pressure on us to keep making progress. Higher up management sometimes forget that by definition, the term “research” applies that things may not work or we have to go back to the drawing board. This pressure, creates situations where people may find it easier to omit certain details rather than face the management. The responsibility lies with the PM and how he maintains the relationship with his/her team.

  7. I know when I am giving or receiving good news, I like the Joe Friday approach, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Let me know the exact facts of the situation, with no emotion or sugar coating, in as expediently a way as possible. Once all the facts are out in the open and documented, we work quickly towards solving the problem. Nothing drives me crazier than when I know someone is trying to give me bad news, but won’t get to the point. I know I am much more apt to react more positively if someone just gets to the point.

  8. For me, I think an important thing for a manager to do when receiving bad news is to not get upset. The manager should immediately go into a recovery or problem solving mode with the employee or project team. Instead of focusing on the bad, lets try to be productive immediately and figure out a way to right the bad news. Try to take emotion out of the equation and start to take things in stride to work on them.

  9. To start, I believe that project managers and the team members should have a relationship where they are comfortable with each other. The project manager should not intimidate the members, and the members should not disrespect the project managers. Even though this is not a perfect world where everything comes this easy, these standards should be applied to every team. This way, communication between each other will be more clear and transparent. I agree with the milestone idea, as the team leader should be updated with each task assigned. Follow ups will encourage the team members keep up with their own tasks.

    Passing on bad news to my superior leader would not be pleasant, but it must be done. Telling the truth on what the situation is will be the best outcome. I don’t think taking the chances and hoping the project will get back on track is worth the risk.

  10. I believe that for any team to be successful, communication needs to be the top priority. If a team does not communicate well, it is much harder to know if a project will be on time or not. It starts with the relationship between the project manager and the rest of the team. The team needs to be able to freely communicate good and bad news with the project manager without fear or negative consequence. A simple but very important point was to not kill the messenger. When a team member reports bad news to the project manager, and he responds negatively, it will only cause the other members to avoid communication in order to avoid that negative response. Having a understanding and open mind can go a long way. This news is important to the project and it must be communicated clearly and quickly, but if no team member wants to deliver it the news will be delayed further and that will only hurt the project more.

  11. Being confident in completing the tasks that have been assigned to you before the deadline is possibly one of the most exagerated displays that PMs face. Tale-tale signs of inability to fulfill one’s time restraints are often masked by this overconfidence and misplaced pride. As with every aspect in business, open communication is essential and more so, the PM needs his/her team to be comfortable enough to admit that they need help. High pressure can help push many to accomplish great deeds, but many don’t know how to cope with the consequences of “failure”. Accepting failure as a progress instead of condemning helps people to work best as part of a team and to be honest with their PM.

  12. These tips seem like they would be very helpful and good things to keep in mind during a project. The fourth tip is the only one I worry about because, although you want employees to see each due date as important, this could make them loose sight of the larger goal. There may be other ways of making due dates seem more important like repercussions for not turning things in on time. But this should only be necessary if being untimely becomes a common occurrence in the project.

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