Jonathan watched in horror as Patricia shredded Dave's career. Sure, Dave had just given the Board the bad news — the earliest possible ship was now six months later than promised. But it wasn't Dave's fault alone, and he shouldn't suffer for it. Still, Patricia's behavior was no surprise. Jonathan and Dave had discussed this possibility over scones and coffee in his office just this morning.
As he watched now, Jonathan vowed that he would never do what Dave had just done — hand the hangman the noose to hang him with.
Have you ever watched a career being shredded? Jonathan's was a typical reaction. He decided that he would avoid the trap that snared Dave, by never revealing anything that Patricia could use to harm him. A typical reaction, and, I believe, an appropriate one. If you work for someone who kills messengers who bring bad news, always deliver good news — or no news at all.
That's the problem with killing the messenger. If you're a manager in a project-oriented organization, you need to know the full, unvarnished truth. When you kill a messenger, you demonstrate what happens to those who deliver unpleasant Truth, and you deliver a message of your own: Tell me the truth at your peril.
If you've bagged a messenger now and then, can you believe the reports you receive from people in your organization? Are they truthful? Are they complete? Or are they perhaps skewed toward the positive?
If you've bagged a messenger
now and then, can you believe
the reports you receive from
people in your organization?And what of those who still dare to report bad news, despite having watched you finish off several messengers in the past couple of months? Don't they get it? Don't you doubt their sanity? Can you trust their reports? Killing messengers has such predictable results that you have to question any report you receive. When people have to put their careers on the line whenever they open their mouths, it's more difficult to trust what comes out — good news or bad.
But what about the project managers who've really messed up their projects and who then report the bad news? You might ask, "Can't I kill them?" Nope. Not even them. People watching your actions might not realize that you're acting on the basis of performance, rather than killing a messenger. If you must, reassign poor performers — don't destroy their careers. After time has passed, and they aren't in messenger roles, you can take other action without putting at risk your access to Truth.
In a project-oriented organization, Truth is your most important asset. You must have free access to the Truth. Killing messengers drives Truth underground. Never, ever, kill the messenger. Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
For a connection between killing the messenger and Virginia Satir's Five Freedoms, see "Ethical Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 4, 2007.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions
and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- Handling Heat: II
- Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's
participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
- Human Limitations and Meeting Agendas
- Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control
and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings
more productive and save us from ourselves.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: I
- Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention
skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
- Unanswerable Questions
- Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable
questions and how can we respond?
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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