Now of course as a manager you don’t want to receive bad news anytime, who would? But taking bad news is part of every manager’s job description. The pleasure of being an individual contributor is pushing bad news up the management chain, and off your desk – whether that means a product won’t launch on time or the discovery of a fatal software bug, a real show stopper.
But what’s with the no bad news after Friday afternoon bit? Well every Saturday I enjoy reading The Wall Street Journal’s Review section. And one of the most interesting and helpful columns in the Review section is Ideas Ask Dan Ariely, a researcher in behavioral economics – a field that intrigues me as it’s the intersection sect of psychology (my undergraduate major) and economics, known as the dismal science, at least until the arrival of the behavioral economists. Every Saturday Dan answers questions from readers. Today the question was:
Why does everything always go wrong on Friday evening at 5 p.m., just before I am about to leave work for the weekend? —Matt
Matt’s question reminded me of my tenure as Product Manager for VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, grandfather of Microsoft Excel. I had been hired to replace Dan Bricklin, VisiCalc’s co-inventor along with Bob Frankston. Dan had been acting as VisiCalc’s product manager since its invention and he was anxious to move on to developing both new versions of the software and new software applications. I soon learned that the major responsibility I had was to be the prime interface with Personal Software, a distributor that had the exclusive license to sell and distribute VisiCalc. Personal Software had been started by Dan’s Harvard Business School classmate and was located in San Francisco, 3000 miles and more importantly, two time zones from Cambridge where we were headquartered. That meant that Dave, my counterpart at Personal Software was 3 hours behind me. And that was the problem. Dave had the nasty habit of delivering bad news to me about 5 pm on Fridays, which was only 2 pm PST his time. Not only did this tend to lengthen my work day, not a big deal, but also to lengthen the day of the programmers who had to fix the bug. Worse yet though was whatever the problem was, it was seldom solved on Friday night, and thus festered in my mind, if not anyone else’s, all weekend.
Once I’d accumulated both experience and workplace capital I made it clear to Dave that if he had a problem for me to either deliver it before noon on Saturday or wait until the following Monday. Since he was dependent on me routing whatever problem Personal Software had with VisiCalc to the right person he acquiesced.
Here’s Dan Ariely’s answer to Matt, excerpted:
Actually, things don’t always go wrong at that time—but that’s how we remember it. We don’t have equally strong memories of all mishaps and are more likely to remember Friday problems, since they can delay or even ruin our weekend. In fact, the same magnitude of event that we usually think of as a mishap might be classified on Friday as a full-fledged disaster.
When phenomena come to mind more easily, we also think they’re more frequent (a finding in psychology known as the availability bias).
Ever since that experience as Product Manager for VisiCalc I’ve always made it clear to my staff whether at one of my many startups or an established organization like Addison-Wesley Publishing Company or M.I.T. to deliver their bad news before noon Friday, even if they were in the same time zone I was. And more importantly I trained my staff to come equipped with their advice on how to solve the problem or better yet, options for how we would solve the problem. This dictum not only slowed the flow of problems onto my desk, it also developed staff, who learned they had ownership and agency to solve problems on their own. And if they were stuck, they knew to at least push on to coming up with some options for solving the problem.
So while Dan Ariely says, It’s not about Friday; it’s about your attention and memory, if your emulate my example it will be about Friday and protecting the weekend time of you and your colleagues. Try it, you may like it.