MUM Effect

What is MUM Effect?

The MUM Effect refers to the tendency to avoid the communication of unpleasant information. It also involves the tendency to withhold bad news compared with good news.

This reluctance to communicate bad news is very strong under a large variety of types of news, potential recipients, and circumstances.

The reluctance to communicate bad news is so general and so robust that psychologists have named it:

  • The MUM effect (Minimizing Unpleasant Message).

When it comes to bad news, it seems that, indeed, “Mum’s the word.”

Despite the folk wisdom which says “No news is good news,” almost everyone is reluctant to communicate bad news. Take for example, Tom, a friend of yours, who has applied for a job that he wants so badly. You learn that he will definitely be offered the job. You can hardly wait to tell him the good news. You will take pleasure in letting him know all the details.

Now, contrast this with your feelings if you learn that Tom will definitely not get the job he desires so much. In this case, you probably feel awful and do not look forward to communicating the news to Tom. You might even decide to say nothing about what you found out.

Why People Exhibit the MUM Effect

The reluctance of many people to communicate undesirable information to others, it has been reasoned, is because they fear the psychological discomfort and potential damage to their public images associated with the communication of bad news and undesirable information (Bond & Anderson, 1987; Larson, 1986; Lee, 1993).

  • A good illustration of this has been popularized recently by the British and American versions of The Office, a television comedy in which the central character is an office manager whose high need for acceptance and fear of rejection severely limits his ability to convey even the most vital negative information.
  • In one especially illustrative example, the manager waits an entire month to tell an employee that he has been laid off, and then attempts to deputize another subordinate to convey the news.

A tendency to delay or withhold unpleasant information can have negative organizational implications. It is reasonable to expect that the MUM Effect can inhibit a person’s willingness to speak out when they witness undesirable workplace behaviors.

Thus, an employee might observe a coworker stealing office supplies or shirking duties but refrain from saying anything to avoid an unpleasant confrontation or to avoid angering the coworker.

Similarly, a manager might overlook behaviors such as excessive absence by subordinates to avoid uncomfortable experience of reprimanding them.

Reasons for Withholding Undesirable Information

At least three broad concerns might affect a communicator’s propensity to transmit an undesirable message. Communicators might be concerned with their own well-being.

They might be concerned about the potential recipient, or they might be guided by situational norms or what they understand as “the right thing to do.”

Self-concern factor

Common sense suggests that the communicator of bad news may be disliked even if he or she is in no way responsible for the news. And, there is experimental research demonstrating the validity of that suggestion.

  1. Perhaps the MUM effect arises because potential communicators fear that they would be disliked if they were to convey the bad news.
  2. Another explanation of the MUM effect arising from self-concern implicates guilt. There is a pervasive tendency to believe that the world is (or should be) fair. Perhaps conveying bad news to another tends to make the communicator who is not experiencing the bad fate feel guilty. Because he or she wants to avoid feeling guilty, bad news tends to be withheld.
  3. A third self concern that might account for the MUM effect comes from recognizing that one must adopt a somber if not sad demeanor in conveying bad news. Perhaps potential communicators tend to withheld bad news because they are reluctant to adopt a negative mood.

    Experimental research has provided evidence for all three of these self-concern factors.

Concern for the recipient factor

The reluctance to communicate bad news may come from a concern with the recipient.

When people are asked to explain why they would or would not communicate good or bad news they seem to focus on the recipient. For example, compared with good news, people are more likely to say that the reason they would communicate bad news is because the recipient might have to use that information in some way.

People also say that they withhold bad news because they do not want to put the recipient in a bad mood. Often, communicators assume that potential recipients do not want to hear the bad news.

This assumption is sometimes erroneous. For example, some surveys indicate that medical professionals believe that patients do not want to hear bad news. When people wants to hear the news, whether it is good or bad. The MUM effect is reduced.

Ambiguous norms factor

Finally, the MUM effect may be a result of ambiguous norms. Conveying good news doesn’t seem to be an issue. There are few potential costs.

On the other hand, if you give a person bad news, there are potential personal costs such as being disliked or feeling guilty. Or, you might upset the recipient or embarrass him or her.

Are you the appropriate person to be handling the aftermath?

You could be seen as prying or butting in. There simply aren’t clear rules telling people what to do with bad news.

Indeed, there is strong positive correlation between how good a message is and people’s willingness to relay the message. Although people are reluctant to communicate bad news, there is little correlation between how bad the news is and their (un)willingness to communicate it.

More directly touching the norm issue is the agreement among people on their likelihood to communicate news. There is good agreement (clear norms) in the case of good news but lower agreement (unclear norms) regarding the transmission of bad news.

The MUM effect may negatively affect the organizationOpens in new window by keeping important information from reaching the upper levels. But for an employee, the MUM effect is an excellent survival strategy—no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. When bad news is passed on to supervisors, employees tend to use politeness to soften the news (Lee, 1993).

Interestingly, people have no problem passing on bad news to peers, especially when the organizational climate is generally negative (Heath, 1996).