b-school, Management, MBA, Thoughts

Never say no to upper management (reality will do it for you anyway)

In many organisations, bad news just go one way, and that’s out the door. Managers try to keep their superiors happy, and you bet they do, just talking more about the good things than the bad things. Who can blame them for that?

Well, you should. As I like to say, reality is stubborn. As stubborn as reality can be, and that’s a lot. When you try to make your boss happy, you are making a good deed… unless there are deadlines.

How can huge companies make huge mistakes when everyone knew they were not ready? Well, the leaders didn’t. Upper management really thought they were in a sweetened version of reality. And then an airport fails to work as it should, or a supposedly great product is a flop, or a huge investment in satellites is simply converted into flying junk. Whatever.


This bears an important relationship to what John Kay, a brilliant British economist, labels as the architecture of an organisation. If we see the information as the blood that flows inside the organisation’s veins, a good architecture will ensure that it reaches wherever it needs to reach: the right information to the right people that can make the best use for it.

That won’t happen in sclerotic organisations where there is lack of clear purpose, weak leadership. stakeholder conflicts, where failure is severely punished and where hierarchy is very important. Managers won’t have holistic perspectives at all, but tunnel vision instead. They will make erratic and irrational decisions guided by personal interests, maybe defending their clans and silos. Problems will tend to be assigned to someone else, or simply dissoluted around.

And bad news won’t go upwards. Only downwards. Think of “Why should I bother telling them while it’s not my responsibility to tell? Someone will realise” or maybe “If I put the spotlight in this problem, it will be my problem. Mind into my business.”.


If you add a pinch of “That’s the way we do things around here”, the recipe is made for cooking the ultimate failure. With its executives doped with tons of saccharine, the  organisation will start behaving recklessly. And down below cooperation will give way to antagonism, combined effort to abrasion and erosion. Through the confrontation, we will be collectively driving looking through the rear view mirror… or even, while figthing crises one after the other, looking at nowhere at all… it’s only a matter of time…


3 thoughts on “Never say no to upper management (reality will do it for you anyway)

  1. Matt says:


    doing some interim work post Henley and trying to implement such a change in the organisation. too many people when they recognise a problem keep quiet about it; I want them to identify it and bring it to management’s attention. Of course if management do not want to do anything then that is their prerogative but I’m trying to get people to think beyond the norm.


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