Should you tell your manager bad news?

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jul 31


It was a classic opportunity to give a heads-up to a manager for some questions about his department as a result of a “skip level” breakfast. Questions were asked, answered, about his operation and some additional questions were going to need to be asked later. Nothing out of the ordinary, just clarifications.

Seeing him in the hallway 30-minutes later, I related the conversation that had taken place at the breakfast and wanted him to know that he would get questions on the subject. And this wasn’t some passerby manager. No, this was my manager’s manager who I interacted with on a limited basis in the past.

A five minute conversation. You’d think the person would be grateful for getting the heads-up. You would think that a heads-up like this from a messenger would be greeted with some degree of thanks. For most people, it would. For this manager, you’d be (and I was) wrong.

Delivering a heads-up is your responsibility

It is employee responsibility 101: make sure your manager is informed of incoming so that he or she is not blindsided by a situation. And, when you are “digging up your own mud,” you are already in a situation where you can not only answer most questions, but also talk to steps already in progress to take care of any issues.

This is best practice. Not only for employees, but also for their management.

But there are managers who don’t like digging up their own mud – and don’t like getting heads-up from messengers. Amazing, but true.

How to decide to deliver a heads-up

If my manager had been at work, I would have told him and let him worry about telling his manager. But, my manager was on vacation, the opportunity was there, and so I did employee responsibility 101.

In retrospect, I should have let it go. Here were the clues:

This manager “managed up” and not down.

Consequently, ideas, news, or suggestions coming from his crowd were not rewarded.

Instead of working with other departments on improvements, the department was defended from outsiders.

If everything is always right where you are, it means getting news from messengers blows up your perception of how things are working.

Any initiative taken by the management team was considered a threat.

This manager only gave the great work to people with whom he didn’t consider a threat – like anyone who would challenge one of his ideas, policies, or how things were working.

Sometimes, employee responsibility 101 is the wrong course

In the moment, I thought I was doing the right thing. But after that, I was labeled as a “negative influence” on the department by this manager to the astonishment of myself and the rest of my coworkers.

Going back and thinking this through told me that I should have just let sleeping dogs lie. Being right doesn’t mean that what you are doing is wrong for your career.