From Boeing (737MAX, 787 rollout) to NASA (Columbia, Challenger), we’ve seen disastrous examples of how bad news from people low in the hierarchy gets distorted as it moves to the top of the organization. The distortion is consistently in one direction: it mitigates the bad news, making it sound less severe and less likely than it is.
Which gets us to the first law of hierarchies:
In hierarchies, information flows inversely proportional to the power gradient.
It’s a problem as old as humans and it has a name, The Vasa Syndrome.
The Vasa was a Swedish warship which took its maiden voyage in 1628, sailed less than one mile, fired its cannons in salute, caught a puff of wind and capsized in Stockholm harbor.
This was a time when Swedish was a great imperial power and the king, Gustavus Adolphus, was campaigning across the Baltic Sea in what is now Poland and Lithuania. The ship was originally designed for 24-pounders on the lower deck and 12-pounders on the upper deck. Each 24-pounder would have weighed about 4000 pounds (1800 kg) more than the 12-pounder it was replacing. Further, this weight was added to the upper deck, higher above the center of gravity which made the ship more top-heavy. Additionally, the decks were taller than was normal for the time. The reason is unclear — it could have been to make the flagship seem more spacious or more comfortable to walk around in.
There were additional problems. The Swedes had hired a Dutch shipbuilder to oversee construction of the ship. At the time the Dutch foot (11 inches) and the Swedish foot (12 inches) were not the same length. Rulers of both units were found and there was more bulk to the ship on one side than the other. It seems that shipwrights from both countries were employed and used their own rulers.
Overall, the ship’s design left it unstable and the wind which heeled the ship over in Stockholm harbor allowed water to enter the lower side gun ports capsizing and sinking the ship. A test run without sales prior to the maiden voyage was stopped short because the officer running the test became alarmed the ship was so unstable.
Here’s the tragedy: the senior Swedish admiralty was aware of these issues but they were not conveyed to the king, who had been personally involved in the design of the warship. He had personally approved every dimension of the ship’s plan and the changes to the cannons.
How leaders react to information, good and bad, has a big impact on how much information reaches them, and how much distortion there is in the information that reaches them. When leaders have a tendency to “shoot the messenger” — messengers will become scarce. But even “benign actions” that simply place the leader above the rest of the team will also have a chilling effect. The degree to which your boss seems more important, more powerful than you is called the power gradient and the steeper it is, the more information will get distorted.
The antidote to this problem is the CONNECT play — this is the leader’s play that sets aside our inherited tendency to CONFORM to our hierarchical roles and increase the power gradient and instead works to connect with the other humans we interact with. These leaders deliberately seek to reduce the steepness of the power gradient. In return, they learn more about the organization and will be better architects of decisions within the organization.
Leaders are not passive receivers of information but their actions actively shape what they know and how information flows. The question to ask yourself is: Am I getting the unvarnished truth or does my organization suffer from the Vasa Syndrome?
Learn more by watching this Nudge: Leadership Nudge® 313 – The Vasa Story