Management do not like surprises. No one likes surprising management so what is going on?
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It is said that the best way to succeed is not to surprise your boss. Flag problems early so they are not surprised by events or caught off guard in other meetings about a problem they were unaware of and do not have a response to.
What leads to us surprising our managers?
Sometimes this comes out of someone wanting to be the superhero, they feel if they can fix it, then why tell management. They want to be able to say they resolved it without help. This is dangerous, as sometimes the issue can become too big for you to handle and now it is worse when management get called then if you warned them early. You do not need to have all the answers, you may not need them to get involved yet, but you should let them know.
“We have an issue, I am working on it, I do not need you help at this time, but I will keep you informed and will reach out when I need your help.”
Remember you may not know the full extent of the problem, there may be other players involved or decisions made you are unaware of. Early warning allows your manager to be prepared and to work with you. It allows them at meetings to not be caught off guard on an issue someone on their team is working on. I have experienced this and it is no fun when another team ask you a question on some issue you were unaware of and your team is working on.
Sometimes people feel that they do not want to bother their management or escalate items on their colleagues as this may cause breakdown in trust. Let your colleagues know you are bringing this to management and copy them on it. If you are clear on why you are escalating or informing, you will work better with your colleagues, as they will see transparency, build trust and will know when you are asking for management involvement or not, so they are not be surprised if something comes down their management chain. There should be no surprises to your colleagues on messages going to management.
It is possible you underestimated the effort or were over optimistic on your deliverable, even so, it is better to explain this to your manager who can help, then to let if become a larger problem. Admit mistakes, this is much better for management to see that you made a mistake and are self-aware and correcting it, than being surprised by the outcome. Most good managers will reach out to help you learn and move forward.
This no surprise management should work both ways. Your manager should not surprise you and should keep you informed of decisions that affect your work. As a manager, you should also inform your reports of changes in direction, changing priorities and avoid surprises for them. They may not know that something else was happening that has made their work on this more critical to a bigger picture.
Important things to remember as a manager, if you want trust and people to be open about issues, accept the bad news and thank them as this is something you wish to encourage in your teams. If you shoot the messenger, then they will not come back again. Instead, thank them and use it as a learning or coaching experience. This will create an environment that will encourage constructive updates on potential problems before they become surprises. This action should not be seen as escalation, but as a natural part of the business, keeping all informed of what is happening on projects and eliminating surprises.
When were you surprised as a manager or a team member and how did it make you feel?
What could have happened to prevent this?