Why Managers Don't See Problems Until It's Too Late

Last Updated Aug 25, 2009 12:34 AM EDT

Could that seemingly isolated customer service complaint be indicative of a bigger problem? Is a quality control issue in a single manufacturing plant a harbinger of headaches to come?

According to Know What You Don't Know:How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen author Michael Roberto, the answer is quite possibly yes. A professor of management at Bryant University and former faculty member at Harvard Business School, Roberto advises managers on how to spot small problems in their organization that could potentially lead to disaster down the road. He told me more about this when I had the chance to speak with him recently:
The idea in the book is that often when you see a large scale failure, it's really not something that happens in an instance. Often, it's the result of a smaller problem or a chain of errors. The earlier you can break that chain, the better off you will be.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and there can be many factors in your organization that are hindering you from detecting these problems. Roberto told me four of the most common:
  • 1. Employees are afraid to speak up: "People are very deferential to those at senior levels and they're afraid to be the bearers of bad news," says Roberto. Also, if playing the blame game happens a lot within the work environment, employees might hesitate to mention their own mistakes for fear of repercussions.
  • 2. Gatekeepers block information: These are the employees who help senior executives manage the flow of information. While these staff members are invaluable for helping senior managers streamline their work, "gatekeepers can often filter out and be an impediment to key news about problems getting to senior executives," Roberto says.
  • 3. Isolation: According to Roberto, "Many executives don't get out to the front lines and see what's authentically going on. They may have a townhall meeting type thing, but often those are fairly staged events, and they aren't truly finding out what's happening out there on the ground."
  • 4. Managers don't want to hear problems, only solutions: Roberto says that many managers essentially instruct their employees, "don't tell me about the flood, build me an ark." While it's good when lower level employees can provide possible solutions, this is still the wrong message to send. "What if your employees see something very serious, but don't have the expertise to solve it? Are they supposed to stay quiet?" he asks.
In case you hadn't guessed, the answer is no. While creating a comfortable environment for employees to share problems is one way to improve your trouble-finding acumen, Roberto outlines many other strategies in his book. Next week, I'll share a few.
  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.