Surprise, Surprise

August 11th, 2009

Source: Luisvilla @ Flickr

Source: Luisvilla @ Flickr

This spring I took my first trip to Vegas for a Ragan Communications social media conference, and asked my good friend P. to come along for evening fun. The first night, after the requisite buffet, gambling and Cirque du Soleil, P. and I slid into the luxurious comfort of our respective shmancy beds at the Wynn (thank you, Travelzoo, for alerting me to the special rate). Just before I turned out my light, P. piped up, “Oh, um, I forgot to mention…I often snore really loudly.”


Now, P. is a very good friend and I always travel with ear plugs so all was forgiven, but that’s what I call an unfortunate surprise. What if I didn’t travel with earplugs? [“Murder at the Wynn: A Mystery” comes to mind.] Come to think of it, I became an earplug devotee after traveling in Europe with a friend whose nasal passages, I discovered, produce hair-raising decibels while she’s in the dead of sleep. She, too, mentioned this just before our heads hit the pillow the first night.

Now, why did these otherwise sensitive, considerate people fail to prepare me in advance? They weren’t maliciously withholding information, it just slipped their minds. Why? Because nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news.

Unfortunately, this same human tendency proliferates in workplaces everywhere – EVERYWHERE. And what happens when we get nasty surprises at the office? We all know, because it’s happened to all of us – probably both on the giving and receiving ends.

It’s lousy. It makes work harder to do. It makes people angry. It erodes confidence in leadership. It erodes top- and bottom-line performance.

So how can good leaders contain the ill effects of this particular aspect of the human condition? To be sure, it’s not easy, and sometimes it can’t be helped due to confidentiality requirements. But these steps can help:

  • Infuse in your culture a transparency priority: make it known to everyone on your team(s) that success requires a free flow of information, good and bad.
  • This is an especially critical message for field employees, who MUST– as the eyes and ears of the organization – be given the motivation and mechanisms to report in issues and failures to those responsible for addressing them.
  • Deliver these messages with a solid communications plan that fleshes out the kinds of information that must be shared, how, when, and between whom: both top-down and bottom-up. A solid, well-executed plan helps get important news – good and bad – to the right people at the right time.
  • When you really can’t share certain information, explain why. At a certain wireless carrier I know, it drove store employees crazy to be notified of a product launch just a day or two in advance. No one had supplied the very reasonable explanation: to surprise the competition, you can’t tell 8,000+ retail sales associates.

Unpleasant surprises in the workplace can have a nasty and lasting impact on performance and morale. Leaders have the responsibility to minimize surprises by putting well-crafted communication plans in place, and when they can’t share news, to mitigate the damage by telling employees what they can’t report and why.

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Learning Program and Team Awards 2009-2014


ASTD Excellence in Practice

Technical Training Award
Training Management Citation (for new programs)
Learning Technology Citation
Workplace Learning & Collaboration–Leadership Development (x2) Award, Citation
Workplace Learning & Collaboration–Onboarding Citation
Sales Enablement Citation

Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning

Best Custom Content Gold
Best in Learning Strategy and Governance Gold
Best Leadership Development Program Gold
Best Innovation in Learning Technology Silver
Best Leadership Sales Training Silver
Best Integration of Learning and Talent Management Bronze
Best Use of Games for Learning Bronze

Brandon Hall Technology Excellence

Best Advance in Social Learning Technology Gold

CLO Magazine Learning in Practice

Technology Innovation Gold, Division 1
Innovation Gold, Division 1
Business Impact Gold, Division 2
Business Impact Bronze, Division 2


Learning Organization Ranking Awards


American Society for Training & Development

ASTD BEST #1 (up from #32 in one year)
#2 (up from #37 in two years)

ELearning! Media Group

Learning! 100 #1 (first year on list)

Chief Learning Officer Magazine

LearningElite #1, #4

Training Magazine

 Training Top 125 #1, #2 (up from #41 in one year)