Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 33;   August 13, 2008: Conflicts of Interest in Reporting

Conflicts of Interest in Reporting

by

Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts. Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading and unreliable reports.

We usually rely on those responsible for organizational efforts to report the status of those efforts. Whether the reports are special or routine, the potential for conflict of interest is clear: the reporter-manager has incentives to report or emphasize good news, and incentives to withhold or soften bad news.

Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launch

Ice on the launch pad on January 28, 1986, the day of the last Challenger Launch (STS-51-L). The unusually cold weather was well beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals of the solid rocket boosters were approved, and it most likely caused the O-ring failure. In meetings on the night before the launch, Morton Thiokol engineers and engineering managers confronted the problem. One of the candidate solutions was to recommend that the launch be scrubbed. Another was to recommend launch despite the weather. Lower level engineers and their managers could not come to an agreement, and in the end, in an example of "covering conflict," the lower level engineers were overruled. See Howard S. Schwartz, Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay, New York University Press, 1992. (Order from Amazon.com) Photo by Michael Hahn, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The difficulties directly created by this conflict of interest are compounded by time skews between the choices and consequences for the reporter-managers. The incentives and disincentives relative to reporting tend to arrive very soon, even when the successes and failures arrive much later. This increases the temptation to shade reports, because the reporter-managers can convince themselves that the problems will be solved over time. Sadly, things often get worse, because the forces that created the problems usually remain in place.

Inaccurate reporting isn't always the result of malice. Here are some of the sources of conflict of interest in reporting.

Distributed control
Most of those we hold responsible for organizational efforts aren't actually in control of those efforts. Typically, they're managers, and the people who do the actual work also affect the outcome. Those who do the actual work might or might not be subordinate to the reporter-manager. When they aren't, the reporter-manager's influence on them might be diminished.
Covering conflict
It's common to interpret conflict between team members, or between the reporter-manager and team members, as a leadership failure by the reporter-manager. When the reporter-manager cannot convince a team to take a position favored by higher authority, there is a temptation to make a so-called executive decision, overruling the team, and report upward that all is well.
External commitments
The people who do the actual work might have external obligations of unscheduled nature. Family situations arise, or mandated training occurs, or other competitive activities appear. When the cause of a delay is beyond the control of the reporter-manager, acknowledging the situation entails acknowledging limits to one's power. Reporter-managers therefore have an incentive to conceal or under-report such delays.
The unknown
When the Most of those we hold
responsible for organizational
efforts aren't actually in
control of those efforts
unknown nature of the task suddenly creates problems, the reporter-manager has an incentive not to report them, because to do so is to acknowledge an imperfect ability to predict the unknown.
The role of champion
Special problems arise when the reporter-manager or the report recipient is the champion of the effort. Bad news can reflect not only on the management and leadership skills of the reporter-manager, but also on the validity of the idea itself. Bad news can threaten the champion's career; good news can create career opportunities. If the recipient of the report is also the supervisor of the reporter-manager, this effect is intensified by the career ambitions of the reporter-manager.

A "dual-key" approach — multiple parallel reporting roles — can help. When reporters know that Truth is readily available through other parallel channels, they're more likely to deliver Truth themselves. Go to top Top  Next issue: Stonewalling: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenTCLdirHAHXlsBoGcner@ChacFOvkZIzulYSyisOhoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Illegal trash dumpIllegal Dumping
To solve problems, we change existing policies or processes, or we create new ones. We try to make things better and sometimes we actually succeed. More often, we create new problems — typically, for someone else.
Patterns of ConversationPatterns of Everyday Conversation
Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space CommandMore Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
Promotional poster for the 1957 film Twelve Angry MenThe Opposite of Influence
The question of why some people are so influential has a partner question: why are others largely ignored, or opposed, even when their contributions are valuable?

See also Workplace Politics and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendaCvDJkipySWtFDuner@ChacFpcVsSntQtIGTByRoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.