Don’t Shoot the Messenger

What do you do when someone approaches you with bad news at work? Or points out a problem with a product or service or processes that are negatively impacting business?

We have all been that person at some point, the reporter of an issue. We notice something is wrong, something that needs fixing. Many of us, perhaps too many of us, have had to stop and think: “Hmmm, how I am going to raise the problem?” Office politics often require we first consider if we might ruffle any feathers, generate negative attention, annoy a manager or colleague. We fear sticking our necks out, only to have our heads cut off.

Of course, this is not optimal, because now, what if you are the boss, the one that should be hearing about problems in the workplace? If you don’t know what is going wrong, then you have know hope of making sure things run well – you know, like a well-oiled, high performing team!

Turns out there is a specific procedure for ensuring you don’t shoot the messenger…and in the end, maximize the opportunity to exemplify exceptional leadership.

The Scenario: Someone that works for you has negative news to report – an issue. You, as the boss, must get to the bottom of the issue in order to understand it and ensure resolution.


The following procedure is a revised excerpt from Ben Simonton’s comprehensive book about leadership skills, Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed. This appears in Chapter 7: Listening.


We have now seen how gathering data or listening depends on gaining answers to carefully designed questions. Since questions are naturally threatening to people, they can cause defensiveness as well as anxiety. Just being in the presence of a boss increases our anxiety and the higher the boss the greater the anxiety — unless the person is a strong and independent, non-follower.

A major goal of any questioning process must, therefore, be to relax fears and prevent anxiety.
In view of this, below is the procedure a boss should use to receive a problem report, which is certainly a challenging situation loaded with pitfalls. But since reporting problems is the most important management rule to set, let’s most certainly not Shoot the Messenger. We must welcome any and all bad news as another opportunity to excel. Done correctly, messengers will not be terrified to raise issues, concerns and problems and some may even feel glad to do so. The boss will have made problem reporting something which no one has a valid excuse to ommit.

THE PROCEDURE

1. Welcome the news. Train yourself to physically clap your hands for joy and smile warmly as soon as you realize that standing before you is a messenger of bad news. Add a few words of welcome to reduce anxiety. Clear your brain to concentrate on listening.

2. Collect the details. Allow the person to continue without interruption while you smile warmly as if you have heard some of this before (you probably have). You might want to start taking some careful notes. Note taking keeps us occupied, keeps us from missing anything and permits us to slow the person down.

3. Ask if there is more. At the end of the person’s report, ask very politely if that’s all there is or if there is more. Send the clear message that you are in no hurry and your only desire is to collect the details (reflecting high quality).

4. Discuss corrective action. The person reporting the issue(s) may be ready to discuss corrective action. If so, collect this now before you start asking questions. You might desire to jump to questioning the person, but remember you are far more worried about the person’s feelings than yours. So proceed however the person wishes. When he or she stops, ask if there are any more details worth knowing. Do not assume that the report is complete until there is a definite statement to that effect. Then worry some details have been left out.

5. Give thanks for the information and appreciation for the person’s effort to tell you. Perhaps a reference to your reporting rule — that all problems be reported up the chain — can be made and how important that is to your ability to do your own job.

“Well, that’s quite a load, Pat. Thanks a lot for bringing it up. You know I’ve got this rule about reporting all problems, so I am really grateful that you did so. If you don’t report problems, I’ll never be able to do my job. This is really important to me and I appreciate you informing me.”

6. Only now can you ask questions. At this point, you should have been able to gain composure and prepare yourself. You have had plenty of time to mentally note what’s not been said, what’s been implied that needs amplification, what the reporter’s body language gave you that was missed in words and what was said but not clearly enough for you to understand. The person’s body language should have communicated relative importance, degree of hazard, whether there is more to the story, etc. You have also had time to compare this event with others in your experience so that you may now apply previous lessons learned.

7. Go back over the problem carefully with your questions, even to the extent of full repeats. Do not be accusatory or in any way place the person on the defensive. Remember, you are on the same team! The questions must be professional, unemotional and matter of fact. You set the tone. You might even explain this fact and that you want to ask some questions, in order to fully understand the nature of the problem, and after all, making things worse by taking inappropriate actions is not your intent.

8. Root causes. Beyond the problem itself, there are root causes which are the “people problems” of this book. Your questions must probe for these possibilities. Frequency of occurrence, similarity to other problems, association with particular groups or individuals, as well as the reporter’s tone and body language can be great signposts.

“I don’t want you to criticize your peers (or boss), but what do you think, Pat, about how the problem got started? How can we do better?”

Careful circumspect probing that begs for possible answers is the rule here.

9. Wait to fix the people problems. Any need for fixing people problems will slowly become apparent as the problem reported is clarified and understood and the solution is developed. People problems can only be understood after some detailed discussion. The wrong order, miscommunication, the wrong goal, the wrong training or tool or procedure are so pervasive that laying blame on a people problem is not possible until the very end of this process. Do not attempt it in the beginning as it will really shut down the problem report.

10. Ask if he or she has any recommendations as to how to proceed, if not already provided. Ask questions to get all the details and the reasoning. People who spend time using their brainpower to figure out actions must be recognized and praised.

The careful, non-aggressive but firm questioning is complete. The quality of the report will dictate the number and variety of the questions. You may have many questions or just a few. One valuable by-product of this interaction is a better understanding of this person. Another may be the opportunity for some practical training or coaching of this person through the process, if they came to you less than prepared with details of the issue. Rest assured that after the above process, they will do their homework next time, so that his or her next report will be of higher quality and will require less questions on your part.

11. Ask one more time if there is anything else which might be important to know in designing what you do from here.

12. Thank them big. At the very end, thank the person and show your appreciation again, and with a smile and a lilt to your voice, let the messenger go.

“Thanks again for bringing this problem up. I know it is not always easy, but it is very important to me. And thanks especially for bearing with my questions and being so open with your responses.” The last sentence is said whether true or not, because this makes the next time better.

Blind Adherence

I recommend blind adherence to the above and a solid attempt to have your body language exude the positive, bright and cheerful tone intended. Every boss should welcome the tough problems with open arms because without them you would not be needed. Management can only truly earn their pay in times of great difficulty. If they get tough when the going gets tough rather than get unhappy or vengeful or rattled or reactive, what a great example for others, what great leadership you will exhibit!

Did I say leadership?

Do your own evaluation. Did the script above pass high standards [of the Value Standards of Chapter 4] in the 8 to 10 range? Check the above for a positive attitude and enthusiasm, as well as for positive emotions of smiles and cheers. Check it for delivering humility, fairness, forthrightness and the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” code.

Note how the boss gave no answers, opinions or conclusions, rather choosing to concentrate on getting every possible input the person could provide. The boss paid close attention to the reporter and not on thoughts, conclusions and whatever was inside his/her own head. Most bosses are so busy with their own thoughts and deciding what they will say that they miss half or more of the communications emanating from the reporter. This is interpreted as egotism or selfishness and leads in the wrong direction, away from selflessness and fairness. From such actions, people reporting issues learn they will not be heard.

If the boss consciously uses the above procedure for receiving any problem from anyone, whether initiated by the boss (“How’s it going? Do you have everything you need to get this job done?”) or not, it removes all pressure on the boss to somehow perform as the provider of all answers and all knowledge. It also allows the boss to concentrate on listening, questioning and not missing anything.

Besides, after you have completed pulling everything possible out of the reporter, there will be plenty of time for thought about what to do. Many other people may need to be involved and should have a chance to provide input before proceeding. Do not jump to conclusions or make quick decisions or pronouncements. You only have one report, one of many sides. Be careful to get all sides covered before you err by trying to manage something which needs more facts to reach a conclusion or should be decided at a lower level in the chain of command, etc. Many possibilities exist and most of them indicate that keeping your mouth shut is the best policy until careful thought is possible. Don’t be a loose cannon.

High Quality Actions & Responses
Bear in mind that the previously covered value of quality is key to the above process. Taking a chance on providing guidance or direction or judgment which is of less than the highest quality, when there is no emergency or other condition which requires immediate response, means unnecessarily risking delivering poor leadership. Lack of quality always comes back to haunt us and using the wisdom of “anything worth doing is worth doing right” will pay you back many fold.

Don’t be pressured into being a hip-shooter. Deliberately stop and show respect for the gravity of the situation, for the needs of leadership in general, and most of all, for the people involved. Take the time to do it right. This is termed “attention to detail” for bosses. Practice this and the above for huge gains.

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Ben Simonton

Ben Simonton Managed diverse groups for 34+ years, including as an executive in charge of a 1,300 person unionized organization. He made all the managing mistakes one can make, then devised solutions for 99.9% of people management issues. His mission is to take you beyond great to exceptional.