Avoid “Shooting the Messenger”

Someone asked this question in response to my last note about addressing problems early before they grow:

“What would you suggest a person do when they work for people who don’t listen to warnings? I have encountered this before and find it difficult to express concern when people overreact and almost put you in their crosshairs for speaking up.”

Here’s how I answered:

“The behavior of your manager is called ‘shooting the messenger.’ In ancient times, the story is told of a king who received news that a key battle had been lost. Because the news possibly meant the end of his reign, he chose to deny its reality and ignore it. He burned the message and killed the messenger. It didn’t stop the inevitable.

Discouraging truth telling and discussion by killing the messenger is harmful to the long-term success of the organization. Over time, the organization clams up and no one speaks out.

So, what do you do?

  1. Confront it. Quietly. During a time where there is no pressure. Share your observation. ‘At times, I have questions or concerns about decisions. I feel a duty to raise them. It seems to make you angry. I feel myself withdrawing. I feel it would be more productive if we could discuss those difficult matters without fear of offending you.’ Or something like that.
  2. Team up in the confrontation. Perhaps there is someone who has the leader’s ear. You could share your concerns and enlist her help in getting to a solution.
  3. Back down. Stay quiet. While I don’t recommend it, it’s a strategy. But, I believe it can lead to growing discontent. Eventually, you may do the next option:
  4. Go find another place. We all work best when we feel free to contribute, our ideas are valued, and our contributions make a difference. Life is short. Spending it in a frustrating work environment can lead to an unsettled life.”

I’d like to tell you that I’ve never “shot the messenger” but that wouldn’t be true. Sometimes emotion gets the best of me and most others, too.

But, I do know that if we inhibit open discussion and courageous communication, we won’t be as successful as we can be. So, I try to listen patiently and learn, especially when I don’t like it.

I had a teacher once who said it is better to trust the one who always criticizes than the one who always cheers. I like praise more than most. But, the contrarian plays a valued role.



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Posted in: Communication

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