If there were golden rules to management, one of them would be “no surprises”, especially for your manager in public. You need to make sure that they are aware of the challenges that you are facing, when you are at risk of missing a commitment, when you are having an issue with an employee, and even when you are going to overachieve.

I decided to write this post based on a story that I heard recently where a manager’s manager did not understand the details behind a decision to terminate an employee – until after the termination has been completed and the employee reached out directly. Needless to say, they were not happy with the fact that they were not aware of what was happening!

What you will learn…

  1. Why it is a problem to surprise your manager
  2. How to keep them up to date
  3. What to do when they are surprised

Why There Should Be No Surprises

As a manager, you have a large number of responsibilities in helping your company to be successful. As you do this, you and your team play a role in helping your manager to deliver on their commitments and achieve their goals. And they are doing the same for their manager all the way up to the CEO of the company.

To make all of this work, managers need to trust their teams to meet their commitments. If for some reason they are not going to do that, they need to know early enough to help if possible. When working with your manager, they may have options to help you. They may have resources available. They may be able to move a date because they know there will be no impact. They may have ideas that you have not thought of. If they are not able to help, they will need to communicate early up their management chain – for all of the same reasons.

In addition to all of this, you need to build a trusting relationship with your manager. I will not go into details here as to why this is important. Surprising them is not the way to do this!

Suggestions for Keeping Your Manager Up To Date

When you need to keep your manager up to date, you need to consider two things. Is it urgent? And is it confidential?

In the case where it is not urgent or confidential, you can typically use your regular interactions to share with your manager. That can be a 1:1, project update meeting, or other regularly scheduled interaction. Cover both the things that are going well and the things that are not. Be clear if you are asking for help or if you are just informing. When you have a problem, come in with your thoughts on how to deal with it. Present these options, your recommended solution and ask for their support. If you are unsure as to which direction to go, make it clear that you would like their advice.

If what you need to share is either urgent or confidential, you should not wait for a regularly scheduled meeting. You should instead reach out directly through email, text, or phone. In all cases, it is important that you talk directly with your manager, so if you use email or text, ask for a time to talk. Take the same approach as above in coming up with a recommendation when possible.

There will be times when your manager is not happy with the update that you provide. But it will be better to let them know as early as possible rather than have them hear it from someone else or at the point when there is nothing that can be done.

What To Do When You Surprise Your Manager

You do not want to surprise your manager. You need to do your best to keep them informed. But regardless of how hard you try, there will be times when they are surprised anyway.

The first thing that I always do is apologize. It is never my desire to surprise them.

If we are in public, for example, a meeting, I assess their body language. If they look pissed, I let them know that I will talk to them as soon as they are free. My preference is to talk in person, but if that is not possible, the phone is the next best option. If neither is possible, I immediately follow up with an email summarizing the situation.

Example: Surprised My Manager – Negative Reaction

I always do my best to set my managers expectations. I did this for a software product that we were developing. This product was such that there was a high likelihood, regardless of how much testing we did, that in some cases it would fail. This is because the combinatorics (number of different combinations of environmental factors) is such that it is too timeconsuming and expensive to test them all.

I shared with my manager that there is a good chance that we will have failures with some customers who are early adopters.

He heard me say this but did not actually expect there to be failures. Because we ended up running into a significant number of failures. These failures took us a bit of time to resolve. As a result, I had to go back to my manager and share what was happening.

I expected his reaction to be. Yes you told me this might happen. I actually didn’t expect it, so what are you doing to address the problems. His reaction was much stronger. He was mad! He told me to fix it and fix it asap!

We did, and along the way I made a point of sharing the progress that we were making. He quickly realized that I had prepared for this and that we were solving the problems that were identified incredibly quickly. So the final result was positive.

If they appear to be ok with what they heard, I provide them with a brief update on the spot and offer to follow up with they have time.

Example: Surprised My Manager – Positive Reaction

I was in the process of building a new data analytics team that my manager was very supportive of. The team was perfectly aligned with the strategy for the company. There was some urgency in moving forward with this team, but it was important to make sure that their charter did not overlap with those of other similar teams. As a result, I had spent a lot of time meeting with other leaders as I developed the charter and determined the skills that I would need.

During an large meeting – someone outside of our organization mentioned that they were helping us to recruit to fill a key senior role in this team. The problem is that I had not shared the makup of the team that I was planning to build, and in particular I had not described the need for this senior position.

When my manager heard this he could have reacted by looking at me and saying – “What are you doing?! We need to discuss this before you move forward.”  But what he said instead is – “I did not realize that you were planning to hire a person that senior. But I am supportive.”

I made sure that I followed up after the meeting to appologize and then proceeded to fill him in on the rational behind the senior position.

If we are in private and there is time to have a conversation, I do it right then. If not, I follow the same approach as above.

Regardless of whether I surprised them in public or private, I then make of providing them with frequent updates. Depending on the situation, this might be hourly, daily, or weekly.

Closing Thoughts

The way I like to think about “No Surprises” is to think about myself. I hate negative surprises. I don’t mind positive surprises, but I prefer to know them before they get out widely, especially before my manager or my peers know. This is primarily because I should know what my team is doing and am embarrassed when I do not.

This way of thinking makes it easy to understand my manager’s expectations. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

See Also

What Does It Mean to Give as a Leader

An Awesome Way to Collect and Respond to Feedback from Your Organization

External Article: What Great Bosses Know about ‘No Surprises’

Categories: People


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