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Don’t Kill the Messenger. (Really.)

No secret here: how executives present themselves and the way they react determines the response from those with whom they interact. Almost instinctively, they can inspire enthusiasm and pride or trigger a sense of urgency. But when they provoke an unwarranted sense of guilt or blame by unchecked emotional responses, they fail themselves and weaken their enterprise. I’ve faced this with a few of the clients I’ve served and, I’ve faced it myself.

Kill the messenger! Think of it; when we’re confronted with unexpected negative results, if undisciplined, our vocal reaction reflects our concern. We bristle and then we drill—”How could this happen,” “Didn’t anyone see this coming?” “Why didn’t someone tell me sooner?” The “messenger” may bear some of the responsibility but not all and likely doesn’t have answers to our open ended questions. But he or she has the “honor” of experiencing our first reaction.

Left unchecked, such negative patterns of response have consequences. Cup half full: Most folks I’ve met along the way know to tell the truth but some had to adapt to their environment by parsing it out instead of serving it up on a platter. Cup half empty: I’ve also known a few who “dripped” the truth in the interest of their own self-preservation. In both cases, the enterprise suffered.

A few examples:

• A CEO had an unchecked reaction to bad news; it ranged between bellowing and anger. He didn’t understand why he was always the “last one to find out.” The explanation for that was easy: his team had withdrawn, preferring not to be targets and their initiative had been snuffed in the process. I temporarily filled in as “messenger,” acting as a mirror for the CEO. Eventually, he got it, and while there were still flash points from time to time, his team no longer withdrew.

• The CFO of a five-state multi-plant manufacturing company reviewed preliminary financial statements with the CEO before doing the same with the management team. The company was not performing well and the meetings with the CEO became very painful. Results were consistently worse than expected and the CEO’s emotional reactions effectively “shamed” the CFO who in turn, began ‘dripping’ the results, forcing the ops team into the line of fire.

• Not an exclusive club for CEOs. A VP of sales with a major ego believed he alone was carrying the enterprise and could not take “no” from his sales team.  Repeatedly he would reject their reports that the company was not price competitive and opportunities had been lost. The sales team began to “drip” information, e.g., “the customer has delayed their decision, they said they’ll order next quarter,” etc. The pipeline drained and the VP was exited.

When our own behavior patterns provoke avoidance and cause others to filter the information we require, everyone loses.

I’ve learned to laugh at small crises and try to teach others to do the same.  Where possible, I also try to elevate perceptions of problems (beyond the personal) to inspire more comprehensive solutions. Yet to this day, there is a 50/50 chance that when confronted with game changing negative news, my first response will be to emote. Fortunately, my second response will always be, “Sorry, this isn’t about you—let’s start again from the beginning.’

One of the greatest rewards of leadership are the “high 5s” we get to share for extraordinary accomplishments. Least rewarding is when we are surprised by negatives of significant consequence. Our reaction in those moments can easily influence future communications from our “messengers.” In this case…it’s all about us!

Lesson learned.

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About Jason Doughty

Jason M. Doughty writes for Investing and Strategy sections in AmericaRichest.

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