I'm not dealing with these situations myself, but I recalled a few cases I've seen happened over the years. I'm wondering why this happens and how should managers act to prevent this kind of issue.

Story #1

BigCorp had a small department organizing an internal event, which involved keynote speeches by director level personnel from partner companies and should gather an audience of around 200 people. Let's say the event was scheduled to take place in August. On February, during a meeting about several subjects concerning said department, a VP in BigCorp (which has a whole hierarchy of VPs), asked: "So the event is taking place in May, right?". And absolutely nobody in the room had the nerve to correct him, the VP got confirmed that the event was scheduled for May (much earlier than August).

Afterwards, people seriously considered rescheduling the event such that the VP would remain uncorrected. There were almost a straw picking to see who would talk to him and explain that the event would happen in August.

Story #2

Now, SmallCorp had been founded by a guy with a PhD who developed a nice software product after defending his thesis. Over time, they grew to be a small company where the CEO-founder no longer does relevant technical work, besides still being very knowledgeable in the technology.

A client once pointed out that a small module from this piece of software used some suspicious and complex scheme never found on the literature to perform a computation. This scheme was not much efficient and provided an approximate result, whereas the literature solution is known everywhere, is simple to compute and implement, and gives an exact result. It was noted that the suspicious scheme was taken from the CEO's PhD thesis, where it was developed to perform a similar, but different task. The client talked with the CEO directly about this, who wasn't really convinced, and a dismissive "I'll check this up" was probably given then.

The inappropriate computation had been kept in the product for years, and after being pointed out by that client, remained there. The CEO didn't look into the problem nor assigned a technical person to it. The inaccuracy was not critical, but did cause some minor performance degradation to the end-product, which was generally of relevant concern in that field.

So why this happens?

I've read once that a company's CEO claimed "The last time I knew if my jokes were really funny was the day before my new position was announced." And I can understand it so far, but it seems that something has gone wrong along the way when pointing out minor or objectively spotable mistakes from a person in high hierarchy place becomes such an issue to the point of accepting performance degradation on a product, or considering rescheduling events involving partner companies.

Is this more related to the CEO/VP profile or with the employees themselves?

One big concern is: Communication is not going well between the CEO/VP and his personnel or clients, and at least that much needs to be addressed.


5 Answers 5


It all comes down to economics.

There is an underlying element to all these things. The average employee has no real stake in the success or failure of a project in a typical company. They have a stake in how their actions are perceived to impact success or failure to those above them.

Consider the event planner. Unless they are in marketing or it is a sales event (and perhaps even if it is at a lot of big corps that don't really track these things), they probably won't be blamed for poor attendance. That makes the cost of moving the event to May (and irritating all the other attendees) free for them. If the VP is irritated and raises his voice at the event planner when they correct him, there is the emotional cost of dealing with his irritation.

Which action is cheaper for the event planner?

I have a more absurd case. One of my friends did his internship at an investment firm and in his first year there, he opposed a buy recommendation by someone higher up the food chain of the investment arm. He was right to the tune of $5 million, but he was never asked to look at anything again.

He managed to get back in again the next year to another division and always gave a buy recommendation to any stock anyone else in the office liked. He got to have lunch with the CEO and got a stellar recommendation letter, despite estimating that he helped burn $15 million in investment capital.

A rational career strategy for him involves keeping higher-level people happy even if it costs the company millions.

The client talked with the CEO directly about this, who wasn't really convinced, and a dismissive "I'll check this up" was probably given then.

If even the client can't convince the CEO to change, no lower-level employee is going to convince the CEO to change. The boss is also going to be more embarrassed that an employee knows compared to a client.

The employee probably has no stake in whether the project succeeds or not, so the best case scenario for them gains them nothing and the worst case scenario ends up with the CEO avoiding them out of shame or firing them. An inferior product is no skin off their nose.

Is this more related to the CEO/VP profile or with the employees themselves?

It is related to the fact that humans overwhelmingly prefer people who agree with them and there are enormous benefits to being preferred by higher-ranked people as they have the ability to dish out rewards.

It is also related to the aforementioned fact that most employees gain little from project success beyond favour with their superiors and lose little from project failure as long as they don't get blamed. Currying favour and being liked by superiors is therefore one of the highest priorities for many employees as all the nice things you can get as an employee are doled out by those people.

How do you prevent this issue?

  1. You can't be so much as perceived to punish people who disagree with you. Remember, for the average employee, a sub-optimal result costs them nothing if they don't get blamed.
  2. You need a very good idea of individual employee performance. If you are engaging with them 1 hour a week, they will spend the other 39 hours optimizing for that one hour a week. They aren't going to let that one hour be negative.
  3. Realize that many still won't. There is a power imbalance here, so a certain number are just going to be unwilling to challenge anyone with more power than they have. Lots of people get burned early in their careers challenging their bosses and will never do it again.

People have an absurd tendency to shoot the messenger so at least in Western society, you are trying to counteract a lot of prior bad interactions trying to deliver bad news.


My project is a ticking time bomb.

Im a developer on a project which is not going to meet its main deadline about 10 months from now.

My boss thinks its on track and nobody wants to tell him otherwise.

Its the kind of project where if they knew it was off track we would be swarmed with consultants, the boss would want crunch, and people would be blamed for not doing more as the penalty for not meeting the deadline is massive.

Why is nobody telling him? As the result of telling him is misery while not telling him allows for the comfortable status quo.

There are 7 people on the team. I have a promotion to another team in 4 months. My QA is going on maternity leave in 6. The two other developers plan to step up their job search once this coronavirus thing is over. The BA is frantic already so his life is not nice. The project manager is thinking of their MBA. The scrum master is only part time and has a job in operations as her main thing.

Im basically here to collect a paycheck. I dont really care how things work out for the company overall as unless it fails I get my paycheck either way. So why go through the misery of disagreement and confrontation?

Simply put my life is better when I pass the buck.

  • Hey, I'm your colleague, it would seem!
    – Jeffrey
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 19:44
  • 5
    While I absolutely hate your and your coworkers attitude towards work and workplace, this seems the right answer to the asked question. For myself, I love (or at least I don't fear) correcting my boss and I love it even more that my colleagues are doing so, too. Had to change employer for getting such a workplace, though. Leaving the previous one, colleagues said "the sole critical voice is leaving" o.O
    – Jessica
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 8:13
  • 10
    @Jessica, it's not an attitude towards work and workplace, it's an attitude toward some boss. If that is the attitude the boss inspires, then the boss is a total failure, and the project failure can only be fully blamed on him.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 8:53
  • 1
    @FrankHopkins as that boss in the story, after you fired all the people and hired new ones, you'd be set up for the next round of failure as those folks will respond to the boss the same way.
    – Erik
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 10:35
  • 4
    @FrankHopkins it seems that everyone has a plan to leave before the project ends. Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 15:23

In my opinion this comes down to culture in a regional sense as well as culture in an organizational sense.

In certain regions the culture is very much driven by authority. If you are from or working in one of these regions there will be a very strong expectation to not deliver bad news, especially to anyone above your direct boss. Saving face on stuff big or small is a significant portion of communication bandwidth in these situations. Being open has potential to make someone look bad ("Who told them it was in May?" and can I afford to publicly contradict them). This can be a significant struggle for ex-pats coming from these countries (Why don't they say what they mean?) or ex-pats going to these countries (numerous faux pas for being overly frank).

On top of this openness is an complex aspect of company culture. In generally toxic environments people can face consequences for minor perceived slights. In highly competitive environments people can be easily embarrassed over being seen as wrong. In environments where the corporate propaganda highlights positivity you may not want to be seen as showing negativity (in the loosest sense of the word). There are a lot of types of environment where a simple factual correction can be seen as an attack. It's very important for employees to recognize if they are in this type of environment early on as misreading this can easily lead to inappropriate response.


One management book that I read years ago had the simple title "Motivation". The content was basically: You don't need to motivate employees. They are motivated unless you hired the wrong ones or do something badly wrong to them. What you have to do is to motivate them to do things that are good for the company.

Which means you have to act in such a way that an employee who does the right thing for the company is rewarded and ones who do the wrong thing are not. If you read LetThemFail's answer, at his place it is exactly the opposite: Employees would be punished if they did what's right for the company, and they are rewarded for lying to their boss. Guess what they're doing, and I can't blame them. It's a matter of company culture. And that's why LetThemFail's boss is going to fail, because he or she doesn't motivate people to do what is the best for the company, quite the opposite.

And that is the answer in the end: If employees are rewarded for lying and punished for saying the truth to the boss, they will be lying. I wonder how many people recommended to SoftBank not to invest in WeWork, and how their careers went. The ones who said "yes" and lost billions are probably still there.


Story 1 - By the way you describe what happened AFTER VP made a mistake make me think everyone know that this VP don't take critisim (not even well). That straw thing make me think that the VP kills the messenger. And this paint a picture that he uses his position of power to enforce he's always right. By firin people for example. It's easier to spend X amount of money to hange reality than to correct, otherwise non-consequential, mistake and risk your job.
It's just so much easier to spend company money that to loose job becase you pointed out that it should be eight month and not fifth.

Story 2 - not exactly a good example. Someone pointed mistake to the boss. Boss didn't cared. Why should anyone else?

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