Why Not Turn "No Surprises Management" On Its Head?
If "managing up" with a "no surprises management" (NSM) philosophy is popular, "managing down" with NSM makes just as much sense, according to respondents to this month's column.
As Dan Wallace commented, ''No Surprises Management seems pretty obvious. Why in the world would you want the people you're counting on to help you achieve your objectives to be blindsided?" Roger Studer added, "Take care of those who take care of you." Bob Gunsallus put it this way: "Once you get to the top, quality people keep you there."
Other respondents helped develop a kind of construct for NSM, one encompassing a number of other management behaviors. For example, Gerald Nanninga couched his support in these terms: "This is not just about trust … this is about respect … keeping employees in the dark and constantly surprising them is a serious form of disrespect." Bert Baker linked it to integrity with this comment: "When I know that my manager is a person of integrity, then I know they will not surprise me… My working definition of integrity is: what you believe is what you say is what you do."
Larry Slate, in commenting on how NSM works in his organization, said, "Employees are expected to (be) 'dedicated, professional, accurate, and ethical.' As employees we expect the same from management." Ashok Jain added, "When senior management practices NSM, they are able to build affective engagement with their employees … in creating a learning environment where each employee feels respected and fulfilled in an environment of trust.'' Kim Forbes observed, "This ties in nicely with Servant Leadership.… Treat your organisation's people with respect and understanding. The payback is impressive."
Several commented on the demands that NSM places on management in an uncertain environment and the need for communication. For example, Amitava commented that NSM is a good idea but might take some time to implement. Kamal Hossain put it this way: "When the world is full of surprises …bosses can hardly control drastic actions to keep surviving and that means employees will get their share of surprises … However … a good leader will always communicate … all possible outcomes of decisions, both positive and negative …" Mira added: "A world without surprises or bad news is utopian… I often coach employees to expect the worst and prepare for it… studies should focus on preparation rather than prevention." Paul McKay commented that "By having a clear, focused strategy that is well communicated throughout the organization, and by having all activities aligned with that strategy, the chances of surprises is greatly diminished." And Yadeed Lobo said that it is important for leaders to set expectations early on.
A question appeared to be posed by Gauray Goel when he commented, "downwards NSM is more of a symptom of competent managers than (a) cause of good performance…" Another may have been provoked by Kapil Kumar Sopory when he offered the opinion that "NSM is an ideal concept. However, it will work upwards only if it is first crystalised upside down." Why not turn "no surprises management" on its head? What do you think?
Managers often tell their direct reports, "I don't want any surprises." No surprises management (NSM) is a term long associated with the idea that the best way to succeed is not to surprise your boss. Better that superiors should be informed early on of such things as expected shortfalls in performance, changes in tactics, new information impacting a business, and the like. The intent is to flag potential problems early on so that help can be provided in planning a response.
In reality, employees too often cover up or are reluctant to risk carrying bad news up the chain of command, making a bad situation worse.
What if the NSM concept was extended downward, to entreat managers not to surprise those reporting to them? The potential benefits were suggested by research I carried out for my book, The Culture Cycle. In it, I compared data collected from the offices of a large marketing services firm to which I had been given unusual access. Here are some data from employee engagement studies, human resource reports, and financial statements that the company shared with me:
|Office 1||Office 2||Office 3|
|In my office, senior leadership's actions are consistent with what they say||46%||54%||67%|
|I know what is expected of me at work||91%||76%||94%|
|In my office, management is trusted||46%||30%||69%|
|Employee engagement index (five is highest)||3.93||3.53||4.17|
|Two-year average annual employee defection rate||32.3%||21.3%||19.2%|
|Two-year average annual client defection rate||37.8%||48.4%||31.7%|
|Two-year average annual operating profit as a percentage of revenue||13.3%||3.7%||22.5%|
This data suggests (without proof of cause and effect) that significant improvements in performance can be associated with leadership that produces no surprises for those lower in the organization.
Senior managers who practice NSM apparently create few expectations among their employees that go unmet. Training and development commitments to employees are kept. Decisions agreed upon in meetings are implemented. If expectations are not met, employees are informed with a timely explanation of reasons for the shortfall. Relatively small differences in the degree to which expectations are perceived to be met and trust established appear to be associated with significant differences in operating performance.
This raises questions for us as leaders. Once we establish expectations among our direct reports, do we try to make sure that we meet them all? Where it is not possible, do we attempt to provide reasons in a timely manner? What levels of trust does your leadership create in your organizations? How do you know? What, if anything, might you resolve to do to measure and remedy low levels of trust? Do we need to extend the "no surprises management" philosophy? What do you think?