No Surprises Management (NSM) is a common term that direct
reports will hear from a manager as a way to avoid getting
on the manager’s bad side.
NSM certainly makes sense from a managerial perspective
since nobody likes surprises that can have an adverse
impact on the business. It is always better to hear the
bad news early and have the luxury of additional time to
In the book, “The Culture Cycle,” Harvard Professor James
Heskett takes an interesting approach to NSM and
identifies the productivity gains when managers reverse
the flow and practice NSM with their direct reports.
HR POINTER: When a manager practices NSM with direct
reports, the level of trust and respect between the
parties increases, which allows for an open exchange of
expectations and dramatic improvements in the business.
Back in the 1970’s, the First Assistant Theory of
Management was a popular approach to communicating with
employees. In essence, the First Assistant concept turned
the organizational chart upside down and encouraged
managers to treat direct reports as if the manager was the
“First Assistant” to each subordinate.
In management practice today, the Servant Leadership
concept probably best compares to the First Assistant
approach. At the heart of both of these philosophies is
In his book, Heskett refers to the benefits of a NSM
culture, which he notes as his “Four Rs:”
#1 Referrals: A higher proportion of candidates for
employment are recommended by current or former employees.
#2 Retention: Lower recruiting, hiring, training, and lost
productivity costs because of greater employee loyalty.
#3 Returns to labor: Greater productivity per dollar of
#4 Relationships: Better customer relationships, resulting
in greater loyalty, lower customer acquisition costs, and
If you would like to see real payback on your human
resource expenditures, practice NSM with your direct
reports and watch the metrics improve.