Self-preservation vs. the bad news

A large company for which I once worked had a very intelligent and dynamic chief executive who was charged with turning around a staid organization in a relatively short period of time.

He staffed the company with a few loyal followers from his previous organization and brought in several top-level executives from the outside. Included in the mix was a top lieutenant who, for whatever reason, ultimately soured on the strategy.

For many months, in lower level meetings and private conversations, the lieutenant totally cut the chief executive. It got to the point that in staff meetings where the CEO was not present, this lieutenant would publicly criticize the strategy and openly berate the chief executive.

After about a year, word came out that the lieutenant was leaving to join another company. This was announced officially in an extremely laudatory memo to the entire staff from the chief executive, who greatly praised all that the lieutenant accomplished in his tenure. After the going-away party, I was alone with the CEO and mentioned in passing that it seemed awfully gracious for him to write such a memo and say such nice words at the going-away party – considering everything.

He looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “What do you mean, ‘considering everything’?” I said that I had thought the lieutenant really had been fired and that the CEO was being very professional about it.

“Why would I fire him?” the executive asked.

“For all those things he has been doing and saying about you,” I said.

The CEO asked: “What things?”

As I began to relay many, many instances of undercutting, from comments at staff meetings to private discussions about, in essence, a mutiny, it began to dawn on me that the only person in the entire management team who was unaware of the departing lieutenant’s ill will was the chief executive.

He finally looked at me and asked: “Why didn’t you tell me?” I answered, “I thought you knew. ”

This is an example of a situation in which a chief executive was not totally connected, not only to his direct reports or to the true internal activities within his own organization. At times there is a natural hesitancy to communicate a fundamental negative picture. Many surrounding the chief executive are aware of what’s really going on internally, but don’t jump at the chance to tell him or her.

The primary cause of this is self-preservation. After all, who wants to be the bearer of bad news? The “I-can-do-anything” attitude that managers often feel they must demonstrate doesn’t seem to lend itself to approaching an executive with something that could sound like “let me tell you about your shortcomings.”

There is also the fear of sounding like sour grapes or ratting someone else out. How plausible is it for a manager to go to the executive and say, “I love what you’re doing, but let me tell you about what someone else thinks about you that is not so good”?

In some cases, managers and employees feel it is not their place to tell, feeling the executive is surrounded by smarter people.

And worst of all is the feeling on the part of manager or employee that the top honcho is really a loser. The manager feels he knows what’s best for the company, and it’s not the strategy announced by the executive. Believing the strategy won’t work, the manager not only does not buy in, but also expects he will still be at the company after the executive and his strategy are long gone.

In these economic times, ignoring the natural tendency of professional self-preservation can be difficult, but is necessary to properly align internal communication so that all may focus on external success.