“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2

Johanna Rothman’s recent post talks about what happens when managers ignore or suppress data.

Trouble can’t hide when information is public. Trouble is, some managers, such as the one described in Johanna’s post, are unable or unwilling to “see” the current state, or let others see it.

Why? I have some theories:

–The manager may have deeply ingrained internal rules about failure or success that act against acknowledging the current state: Rules like “I must always meet others’ expectations,” “I must always deliver on my promises,” “I must never fail,” are powerful, influencers of behavior. We’ve all got them, we just bump into them in different ways.

–The organizational culture may cause people to suppress “bad news.” People in organizations that shoot the messenger often sugar-coat and suppress information about the current state. “Shooters” deprive themselves of the very information that would help them succeed, or at least mitigate disaster. Managers of the shoot-the-messenger school seem to be fond of phrases like “Failure is not an option!” My little internal metric is that the likelihood of failure is directly proportional to the prevalence of this phrase (and it’s close cousins).

–I’ve noticed that people with high self-esteem are more able to accept deviation from the desired state as information… neither bad nor good, that will help them take appropriate action. And I’ve seen managers with low self-esteem who were quite unable to admit that things weren’t going well. My theory is that people need a good bit of self-esteem to admit problems or mistakes.

–Some managers seem to know, on some level, that things aren’t going well, but they don’t know what to do about it. This not-knowing-what-to-do seems to paralyze some managers. (Managers are supposed to know how to do everything, right?) Rather than admit they don’t know what to do and ask for help, they let the situation continue spin out of control until it’s too late, or at least very difficult to take corrective action.

The common thread seems to be that managers who suppress “bad news” or appear oblivious to “bad news” are protecting themselves in some way.

On the other hand, I’ve met some manager who were masters at declaring victory in any situation, marketing up, and moving on before the consequences come home to roost.

I interviewed one project manager who left a project for another job six weeks before his project crashed and died. When I talked to him he said, with a straight face, “I don’t know what happened. That project was on track when I left, at most a week behind. How did they manage to ruin it in six weeks?”

I find these managers particularly puzzling.