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:
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- Some of us are fortunate — we work for companies that make sure they have enough people to do
all the work. Yet, we still work too many hours. We overwork ourselves by taking on too much, and then
we work long hours to get it done. If you're an over-worker, what can you do about it?
- Hurtful Clichés: I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- Responding to Threats: II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often
are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to
avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Power
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requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal
- How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
- Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt
can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen?
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
- And on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
- Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.
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