Don’t EVER Shoot the Messenger, or Anyone Else

“Shooting the messenger” is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of lashing out at the (blameless) bearer of bad news.  To blame or punish the person who tells you about something bad that has happened instead of the person who is responsible for it.

No news travels through an organization more quickly than the boss’ negative and emotional reaction to a development that results in unpleasant consequences for those who are not responsible for it.  A single episode of “shooting the messenger” absolutely guarantees that meaningful discussions, critical self-analysis, and informed debate within the organization will cease. A leader’s inability to receive factual feedback, truthful analysis, frank discussion, and meaningful conversation will produce an almost paranoid reaction among employees, most of whom have no direct knowledge of the actual circumstances, but all of whom will internalize the personal lesson as “don’t deliver any bad (or even slightly negative) news. Tell the boss what he/she wants to hear; happy news, don’t raise issues or identify problems, don’t make waves.”

These behaviors in turn hide from the leadership the very things that are most important for them to know; the organizations’ challenges, threats, future developments, frictions, rough spots, and things that need the attention of those who can prevent them from accelerating into major organizational troubles.  The very essence of a leader’s responsibility is to solve and prevent problems for the organization.  The organizational effect of a leader’s ill-considered outburst on any “messenger” is obvious, especially over time and particularly if the behavior becomes a pattern in the work place.

I once replaced a senior leader in a large organization who was well regarded by those external to the command.  He was well spoken, politically astute, and highly intelligent. But he had great difficulty conveying what he wanted his staff to do and was given to frustration when the staff tried to understand the guidance or provide normal organizational information.  The staff quickly learned not to engage him any more than necessary.  But inevitably the staff had to interact with him and it became evident that they weren’t sure what he wanted and couldn’t deliver routine information.  This further frustrated him and he was not shy in expressing it.  The staff withdrew even further and his frustrations deepened.  It became a tightening cycle that crippled the organization’s ability to perform its mission.

“Shooting the messenger” is one of the most destructive things a leader can do to her/his organization, their own reputation, and worst of all to the employees.

Many thanks, Keith Stalder, #21

Copyright © 2014 Keith Stalder & Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.

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