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a potpourri of mirth and madness

Management and information distortion

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
– attributed to Mark Twain

There is a lot that I don’t know about what goes on in my organization. This isn’t only because I can’t observe everything, or because it’s too complex, or because I make mistakes. These are all true, of course, but they’re also obvious. Much more devious is the way the flow of information to me is distorted. It’s distorted by me, and by the people around me, whether any of us are aware of it or not. This is most apparent in considering how people feel about their managers: this is why I have a deeply flawed view of what it’s really like to work for me.

My theory is that power bends information like gravity bends light. The effect is more pronounced with people of greater mass (more authority), and lessened with distance (less direct influence). The more directly you influence someone else’s fate, the more it is in their self-interest to be guarded around you. This means that the people closest to you, who you receive the most information from, may have the most difficulty being open with you, especially if it’s bad news. It also means that the higher your standing in the corporate hierarchy, the more influence you wield, the more people are affected by this.

Pretty scary, right?

Some managers respond to this terrifying reality by trying to collect more information. They’ll quietly cross-check what people are telling them, asking people in different levels of the organization, routing around managers, hoping to get “the real story”. This usually backfires, because it signals distrust to the people involved and makes the distortion worse.

Another common response is to check in constantly, trying to monitor and control the work as closely as possible (so-called micro-management). This is even worse; not only does it signal distrust, but managers who do this become more personally attached to outcomes, and lose perspective on progress and quality due to information overload, self-enhancement bias, and neglect of managerial work. The more it becomes “your” work rather than the team’s, the harder it is to see it objectively.

So what’s a better way to respond to this phenomenon? Here’s what I try to do:

  • Accept it – You’ll never have certainty about what’s happening, so get used to it, and don’t let it paralyze you. Learn decision making strategies which cope well with information noise, and allow you to experiment and adapt.
  • Admit it – Everyone else knows that you have this distortion field around you. If you pretend it isn’t there, you’ll appear deluded. Acknowledge that you don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control.
  • Trust – The more you trust someone, the more they trust you. The more someone trusts you, the more confident they can be in telling you what they think. Be grateful for bad news, and never shoot the messenger.
  • Delegate – Enable people with a less distorted view of the situation to make local decisions. Don’t make people wait for information to propagate through you before acting, unless there is a clear and sufficient benefit to the organization.

I was inspired to think and write about this today after listening to Prof. Robert Sutton’s speech at the California Commonwealth Club, which Lindsay Holmwood shared with me.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 9, 2010 at 17:00

Posted in Uncategorized

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6 Responses

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  1. Interesting read, thanks for sharing this Matt.


    November 9, 2010 at 17:50

  2. Insightful post, Matt.

    Dustin Kirkland

    November 9, 2010 at 17:57

  3. I particularly like this tweet along those lines:

    I’d also add that you should encourage joint ownership of problems. If someone comes to you and says “the TPS reports won’t be ready” then a better response is “what can we do about that” or “how can we handle it.” It goes along with not killing the messenger, but I think it’s important to take it a step further.

    Ted Gould

    November 9, 2010 at 19:48

  4. Interesting that you write this not long after I was thinking to myself how dirty the lens I tend to view the world through is. This sort of thing cause me some mental pain, and you mentioning something like “You’ll never have certainty about what’s happening…” gives me some relieve.

    Good post, thanks.

    Tshepang Lekhonkhobe

    November 10, 2010 at 00:40

  5. What do you think 360° feedback reviews? It’s supposed to give you an accurate picture of what it’s like to work with/for you, provided that the feedback is anonymous and results are not directly tied into compensations.

    Marius Gedminas

    November 11, 2010 at 16:36

    • I think it’s astonishing that so many companies still do them, in the face of overwhelming evidence of their ineffectiveness. ;-)

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 11, 2010 at 17:28

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