Don’t shoot the messenger

Much has been said and written recently about the importance of leaders creating an environment in which people are willing to “speak truth to power.”

Earlier this month, the presidents of the University System of Georgia institutions had a retreat, at which we discussed leadership.  One topic was the lessons that can be learned from recent events at Pennsylvania State University (sexual abuse that was not reported by people who had reason to know about it) and Emory University (falsified enrollment data that were submitted in surveys and which were not reported by those responsible for the data integrity).

Some of the presidents talked about the importance of creating a climate in which people are encouraged to tell the truth and of not shooting the messenger when bad news is delivered.  (These are things the leadership team here at Southern Polytechnic talks about with some regularity.)  Everyone seemed to agree on this point, although how this actually plays out in a campus environment is less clear.

One of the presidents added that anyone who doesn’t report information in a timely way needs to be punished immediately.  My reaction was that this attitude has the potential to undermine the goal of creating a respectful working environment in which people feel safe sharing information – both good and bad.  It seems to me that reprimanding people for their timing may do nearly as much to discourage the honest reporting of problems as chastising them for the news they bring.  And how could someone sort out the difference between being punished for the message or castigated for the timing?

The better leadership solution, it seems to me, is a continual focus on building trust throughout the organization.  Key ways to do this include dealing with bad news calmly, focusing on solutions, and never shooting the messenger.  The reservoir of trust will pay off enormously when bad news comes around.

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One Response to Don’t shoot the messenger

  1. says:

    Well said. The culture of a department, institution or organization is set by the leadership. This is an important leadership lesson.

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