Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 45;   November 7, 2001: Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger

Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger

by

If you're a manager in a project-oriented organization, you need to know the full, unvarnished Truth. When you kill a messenger, you deliver a message of your own: Tell me the Truth at your peril. Killing messengers has such predictable results that you have to question any report you receive — good news or bad.
Scones and coffee

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Your Boss Attacks Your Self-Esteem  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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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Many of us are experts in risk analysis and risk management. Even the nonspecialists among us have developed considerable skill in anticipating troubles and preparing plans for dealing with them. When these habits of thought leak into our personal lives, we pay a high price.
FeedbackFeedback Fumbles
"Would you like some feedback on that?" Uh-oh, you think, absolutely not. But if you're like many of us, your response is something like, "Sure, I'd be very interested in your thoughts." Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?
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Ever learn of a complaint about you for the first time at your performance review? If so, you were blindsided. Reviews can be painful. Here are some guidelines for making them a little fairer.

See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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