Although the expression comes from distant times when the messenger of the bad news rather then the author was often punished, it reflects a deep-rooted truth still valid even today: People do not like to hear bad news!
Not only we do not like to hear bad news, but we also have the tendency to still “punish” the messenger, who in the organizational context of today, is often in some way hold accountable for the bad news. Nowadays such “punishments” are mostly encountered in forms of intimidation, such as bursts of ironic laughter, explosions of anger, or degrading the messenger, sometimes even firing them.
A management culture where “bad news” is handled in this way doesn’t help encourage failure free operations.
The fear of being shot for telling your message induces the fear of telling the bare truth and present the status for what it is. Therefore research and analysis based decision-making become redundant and open the door for flawed business strategies and operational plans.
You can recognize the presence of “intolerance to bad news” management culture when you hear someone:
- Present the results of their own work or the status of his/her department or group in the third person or a passive voice, (e.g. “the launch of product x was not successful” as compared to “we were not successful with the launch of product x”)
- Present the status in generalized way so as to cover up for the areas leading/ contributing to the failure
- Present failure in an implicit rather then explicit way (“we still have a lot of work to do” rather then “we are very likely going to over run the deadline”)
We are by human nature selective in what we want to hear. As managers, however, we owe it to ourselves to question how we handle bad news. “Shooting the messenger” will more likely than not result in us hearing what we want to hear until we end up caught out in fault.