Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Shooting the Messenger
When shoot-the-messenger becomes standard operating procedure, the long-term results are utterly predictable: small problems will grow into big problems, because people low on the food chain with relevant knowledge will keep their mouths shut. Over the long term, shooting the messenger guarantees disaster. That’s pretty much what happened in this case: people high on the food chain made some pretty uninformed decisions, but nobody beneath them who knew better felt safe saying anything. So nobody did, the consequences snowballed, and now we have a full-blown fiasco.
(From what I’ve read, this is almost exactly how the Bush Presidency operates, with tragic consequences.)
I’ve never seen a compelling argument in favor of shooting the messenger. Most people agree, when asked, that it’s a terrible idea. Yet the behavior persists. Why?
Admittedly, messengers are imperfect, and sometimes even implicated. Messengers will present information in the light that makes them look best, so a certain discounting can be in order. And everybody gets crabby sometimes. There are crunch times during the semester when I’m simply on overload, so I’ll push back a meeting or defer a discussion until I’m better able to handle it. But that’s seldom more than a day, and usually not more than an hour. And I don’t hold it against the messenger; if anything, I apologize for the delay.
Messenger-shooting goes way beyond that. It involves questioning the loyalty of anyone who raises uncomfortable points, even to the level of terminating them.
I think, in part, it comes from impatience with passive-aggressive foot-dragging. Folks who
On related lines, sometimes the options at hand both suck, if in varying degrees. People who aren’t paying very close attention – that is, most people – won’t see the dilemma; they’ll just see the option that got selected. Elements of that option will suck. The folks who made the call probably have some idea of the downsides, and, being human, aren’t terribly keen on constantly being reminded.
And of course, sometimes messengers are wrong. I’ve heard a fair number of whacked-out explanations from the trenches over the years, enough to know not to fall for the “if the grapevine says it, it must be true” fallacy. Sources of error can range from personal vendettas, to connecting the unconnected, to an inability to do math, to forgetting to put on the tinfoil hat. These all happen. Combine enough of these, over the years, with enough instances of passive-aggressive foot-dragging, and I could see how seasoned leaders could get pretty jaded.
It’s after you commit that you learn the difference between passive-aggressive slackers and people with the best interests of the organization at heart. By then, of course, it may be too late.
We have new leadership at the college, but most of the lower-level folks date back to the previous regime. Convincing a generation that spent a generation learning to keep its collective head down to speak the truth is tricky. Trust builds slowly, and problems mount quickly. With each week, I discover some new nightmare buried under layers of denial. At what point the balance will tip and we’ll start actually gaining ground, I don’t know. I hope it’s soon, though. The cost of continued foot-dragging is getting prohibitive.