Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Shooting the Messenger

By necessity, I’ve been diving more deeply into a very messed-up situation. In trying to figure out hot it got so messed up, I’ve discovered the shoot-the-messenger syndrome again.

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 know think they’ll be around a long time can fight a project they don’t like simply by complying in the most minimal way possible, maximizing the nitpicking along the way. They can inflict the death of a thousand cuts, all the while protesting that their hands are clean, that they only want what’s best. Once you’ve seen that a few times, it’s easy to start brushing aside nitpicky, detail-y objections as little more than whining or work avoidance (which they are, sometimes). If you try to design an initiative or project to the point that nobody anywhere can possibly raise any objections, you will try forever. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do it, objections and all. The bigger, more expensive, more visible, and/or more important the project, the more objections you’ll just have to live with. Leaders know this. Some people will complain that their objections were ignored, and will use terms like “high-handed” or “arrogant” to characterize the decision-makers; this is simply the price of progress.

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.