So what does a leader — you — do to lessen the fear among those you lead that you will “shoot the messenger?” Here are a couple of ideas:
We’ll get this one out of the way first: DO NOT SHOOT THE MESSENGER. This is easier said than done because our first instinct — our emotional reaction and our instinctive behavior — in hearing bad news is to be defensive. Your first emotion will always be to be disappointed, upset, even angry. Your emotional reaction you cannot or even should not change. You can, however, consciously modify your behavior in response to the news. You can use a more thoughtful reaction. Instead of proceeding with your instinctive behavior “shooting the messenger,” you should thank him or her for providing insights and perspectives, and tell him or her you will look into the situation and take appropriate action.
But what if you’ve already shot the messenger? (It happens.) Know that it’s not too late to get it right next time. But you should publicly apologize for your actions and demonstrate that you understand that the person involved was simply the bearer of bad news. It also wouldn’t hurt if you publicly commended him or her for the bravery it took to speak up.
Minimize your use of your formal power. In an earlier Leadership Lesson, I shared this quote: “The irony is that the more power one accumulates, the less it should be used.” Develop a leadership styles that develops trust in those you lead so they follow your lead because they want to, not because they have to.
Be open. It is all too easy for a leader to seem aloof and disconnected from those they lead. Go out of your way to be open and friendly with your employees, and to show that you value their input.
Leadership Lesson: Leaders need to be very careful to not “shoot the messenger” when problems are reported to them.
Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-647-0495.