There is a piece of advice I hear tossed around on occasion that goes something like “Never let the boss be surprised.” I think it makes sense. Managers need information, both good and bad, in order to make effective decisions. Although I do think this saying makes sense, I also think it’s missing an even more basic point: nobody likes to be faced with an unpleasant surprise at work.
Surprises make management more difficult for a manager, sure. The passage of time gradually limits the options available to resolve a problem. Surprises also tend to make managers angry, but this is not unique to managers. The emotional response to an unpleasant surprise at work can range from panic to anger, regardless of where you are in the hierarchy.
For employees that are not in a position of power, negative surprises can be a huge hit to morale. I’m not talking about those times when everyone gets called in for a “quick meeting” and the leadership team makes an announcement that might be surprising. That is unavoidable, because managers do need to keep information from their team sometimes. Other times, managers need to control the timing of the delivery of bad news. The most common scenario where surprises can hurt an employee is when news ripples through the ranks in a gradual, uncontrolled way. Being the last one to find out a critical piece of information in this way sends the message that you are not important. If a person receives this message a few times, productivity levels may drop. Send this message enough times, and you’ll start losing employees.
Many unwelcome surprises stem from communication failures or the water cooler “grapevine.” These types of damaging surprises can be prevented through effective communication practices (a different topic altogether). There are also situations where unpleasant news sneaks up on everyone. At the end of the day, there is nothing that can be done to prevent this, but if everyone receives the surprise together, there is the opportunity for a much more cohesive response.
“Never let the boss be surprised,” may be true, but it definitely shouldn’t be considered some kind of “business golden rule.” There are many subtleties to managing communication both upwards and downwards in any organization. I believe a policy of “Minimize surprises whenever possible” at all levels is the most effective approach.