There is one source of misperception of which leaders should be aware. Scott Campbell and Ellen Samiec in their book 5-D leadership call it “No Data/Bad Data.” Recognizing these sources will enable you to take strategic action to counteract their effects.
Bad Data/No Data is a phenomenon specific to leadership positions, and the higher your position, the worse it tends to be!
“Bad Data/No Data” is a phrase to describe the very common (and very understandable) practice of subordinates distorting (Bad Data) or omitting (No Data) information when speaking to their superiors. There are three common causes of this syndrome.
- The desire to please the boss. Sometimes people distort or suppress the facts of a situation in order to avoid their leader’s displeasure. The stronger the negative reaction from a leader tends to be, the greater the likelihood that subordinates will in future distort or omit information they judge likely to provoke that response.
- The desire to be identified as a team player. Most people have a natural desire to be seen as a team player, or someone who supports the party line. In many settings, a person who brings troubling news to a group’s attention receives messages (verbal or otherwise) that such news is unwelcome.
- The desire to be seen as positive. The individual’s normal desire is to be viewed as positive and upbeat, not the organizational crank. If this is reinforced by a leader’s attitude that people who discuss unpleasant information are “negativists,” it is even more likely that information will be laundered.
Bad Data/No Data is most extreme at the highest levels of leadership. The desire to please the boss and avoid possible recrimination for sharing bad news is a dynamic that anyone with formal leadership authority in a company will have to deal with. In situations where information is being filtered up from the bottom of an organization to higher levels, the information is likely to be altered somewhat at each layer. By the time it reaches senior levels, the story may tell a rather different tale from what is actually occurring at the grassroots level.
To be clear, we are not suggesting that individuals are intentionally trying to undermine an organization or that they are unethical and untrustworthy. Individuals do not usually have malicious motives in “adjusting” the facts they are communicating. They may not even be aware that they are suppressing or distorting information. The power dynamics between leaders and their followers naturally create conditions in which Bad Data/No Data will flourish unless consciously countered.
Misperception may be common, but it is not insurmountable. What, then, can a leader do to combat their effects? What follows are seven of the most important strategies and tactics to help you better see your reality.
- Cultivate a climate of mutual trust and openness, where individuals feel their opinions, concerns, and perspectives are genuinely desired and appreciated.
- Give up the search for someone to blame when things don’t go right.
- Face the fear of knowing the truth.
- Look for data, trends, or actions that don’t fit our expectations.
- Create structures and systems that build in multiple perspectives.
- Seek outside data.
- Genuinely accept that you fail to fully see reality.
Accepting this truth means that, whenever possible, you need to withhold judgment until you have explored the situation from multiple perspectives.
Adapted from 5-D Leadership, Key dimensions for leading in the real word, Scott Campbell and Ellen Samiec, D-B Publishing