Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shooting the Messenger: How Do We Perceive The Bearers of Bad News?

Leslie John, Hayley Blunden, and Heide Liu have published a new paper titled, "Shooting the Messenger" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.    In a series of experiments that find  people have a tendency to “shoot the messenger" even when the bearer of bad news is innocent, i.e. they bear no responsiblity for the actual failure/mistake being reported.   Moreover, they find that, "When bad news is unexpected, messenger dislike is pronounced."  The scholars also discovered that, "Messenger dislike is correlated with the erroneous belief that the messenger had malevolent motive."  Finally, they discovered that, "The tendency to dislike bearers of bad news is mitigated when recipients are made aware of the benevolence of the messenger’s motives."  

I often recount to managers the famous quote from Retired General Colin Powell:  "Bad news isn't wine.  It doesn't improve age."  Unfortunately, bad news often does age in organizations, as people at lower levels are afraid to share this information for fear of being blamed, perceived as incompetent, or tasked with solving the problem without adequate and resources to do so.   Unfortunately, the situation often grows worse as the bad news remains unreported. Small problems mushroom and escalate into serious crises before senior leaders learn about the the issues.  

Finally, I often tell senior leaders that they only need to shoot the messenger once in their tenure to create a climate in which people feel unsafe speaking up.  Unfortunately, the institutional memory of a "shoot the messenger" incident can be quite lengthy.   People will recount the story years later, perhaps even inaccurately over time... but by then, the damage is done.  

What should you definitely NOT do as a leader trying to insure the uncovering of bad news before it's too late?  Don't tell your people the following:  "Come to me with solutions, not just problems."  That's a recipe for discouraging the bearers of bad news.  Sometimes, these innocent bearers of bad news simply don't know how to solve the problem at hand.  They need help.  Don't discourage them from disclosing the issue and asking for help.  

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