The phenomena of ‘shooting the messenger’ has a long precedent. There are numerous stories going back into ancient history of the bearer of bad news being beheaded for carrying out their duty. The practice was sufficiently prevalent that codes of conduct had to drawn up so that diplomatic envoys could pass on their information and be returned unharmed. In modern times, passing on useful but negative information is not likely to you shot, but the consequences can still be unpleasant.
So why do senior leaders feel the urge to lash out at the person who is surely simply doing them a favour? A common reaction to bad news is firstly denial, followed by an attempt to discredit the source. Acceptance is then followed by retribution. Psychologists have pointed to a variety of potential reasons. Freud though that it was an instinctive defence response, whilst Karl Jung put forward the theory that it was a subconscious mechanism to reassert a degree of control. Others point to the political challenges of internal politics, where the perceived ‘enemy’ is actually sitting across the table, waiting to take the leaders place. Whatever the excuse, the reality is that such actions reveal a lack of ability to remain objective in the face of adversity.
Dissuading your subordinates from providing important information is never a great strategy, even in stable organisations. In complex project environments it could well be disastrous. Many post mortem reviews of failed projects identify that that the signal that all was not well with a project had become evident well ahead of any formal notification to the project leadership team.
So how good are you at receiving bad news? We all like to think that we will; behave in a logical and rational manner, whatever however unpleasant. We are however human, and so we all need to be aware of the instinct to seek someone to blame as soon as we feel threatened.
The skill is to learn to think systemically around the issues presented. Be analytical in considering what has happened, why it happened and then considering all of the different interactions that have caused the situation to arise. Your team should be encouraged to show and appreciation of the advance warning or trouble ahead as they put you in a greater position of control. Early stage information gives you an edge that is much more difficult to find when the problem reaches crisis point. Whatever your reaction, please don’t shoot the messenger. We were only trying to help.