The Mum Effect and Filtering in Organizations: The "Shoot The Messenger" Problem.

Why Your Boss is Living in a Fool's Paradise

Posted Jun 05, 2010

One of the main themes of my new book Good Boss, Bad Boss is that the best bosses are in touch with how their followers think and act, which enables them to both sustain perfromance and dignity among their followers over the long haul. This is harder to do than it sounds as many forces cause boses to be out of touch with reality, despite their best intentions. One of the most insidious is the Mum Effect, the hesitation that most people have to deliver bad news to others that was documented by social psychologists decades ago and continues to be studied.  The Mum Effect happens in part because people simply don't want to deal with the negative emotion it provokes in the reciever. It also happens because of the "shoot the messenger" problem. Bearers of bad news, even when they aren't responsible for it in any sense, tend to be blamed and to have negative feelings directed toward them. The result is the "Mum Effect": subordinates with good survival instincts soften bad news to make it sound better, or avoid passing it along to their bosses at all.

The Mum Effect and the resulting flitering can have devestating effects in a steep hierarchy: What starts out as bad news becomes happier and happier as it travels up the ranks -- because after each boss hears the news from his or her subordinates, her or she makes it sound a bit less bad before passing it up the chain.  A disturbing example came courtesy of physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman after his investigation of the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He said he'd asked a group of engineers to estimate the probability that the shuttle's main engine would fail, and their estimates ranged from 1-in-200 to 1-in-300. But when he asked the head of NASA to make the failure-rate estimate, the answer he got was 1-in-100,000. Feynman pointed to this as an illustration of managerial isolation from reality, a problem he believed to be rampant throughout NASA.

I suspect that the Mum Effect is one of the reasons that Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, has seemed to be living in a fool's paradise throughout so much of the Gulf oil spill.  Part of it is his blunt style and apparent arrogance, no doubt, but I would love to see what has happened to the messages in BP as they have traveled up the chain.  For example, take Hayward's statements that it is a big ocean and a little bit of oil, or that BP didn't cause the spill but will take responsibility for cleaning it up.   I would love to know what his immediate subordinates told him about these issues, and what their subordinates told him, and so on.  If course, he might just be massively insensitive person, but it strikes me that the fear at BP must be running very high and those are conditions when the Mum Effectand the resulting filtering  is strongest.

P.S. See my post over at Harvard Business Review for more on who bosses are prone to live in a fool's paradise.

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