Educational TV: I was watching the Tudors on the box the other night. One of the minions had received bad news and was worried about informing the King (Henry V111). Apparently, the phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ has some historical significance – albeit shooting might have been preferable to some of the tortures doled out.
Bad News: Some modern day organization leaders are like the kings of old. Subordinates are scared to expose ‘bad news’ – for fear of temper tantrums or even career reprisals. Customer defections, the loss of key contracts, employee problems and technology malfunctions all go unreported. Why? While most of us don’t like to hear bad news, some leaders have a pathological aversion to it. It conflicts with their self-image of being omnipotent.
False Solution: Their ‘solution’ is to massage numbers and silence the skeptics. In some organizations, closing down interactions with people who have alternative viewpoints and shielding the leader from bad news has been elevated to an art form. A constant diet of ‘junk news’ leads to a form of organization cancer where politicking is elevated above performance, denying the opportunity for individual and organizational learning. Over time the organization leader, starved of feedback on their personal performance, can become a jerk! In the US they use the phrase: ‘when you’re green you’re growing; when you’re ripe, you rot’. The best leaders stay green!
Consulting Role: In the consulting world we get opportunities to work directly on this issue. Not wholly dependant on any single organization for our livelihood, leadership coaches can afford to be brave. We can mention the elephant in the corner of the room (a dangerous game if the elephant and the MD are one and the same). Admittedly it has to be done skillfully; the approach and the timing have to be carefully selected. And it has to be perceived as developmental, rather than smart-assed. But when it works, it can work spectacularly well. Coaching can facilitate authentic conversations in which the fears and the conundrums of managing large, complex organizations can be explored. That’s the value of an external voice. Some leaders, trying to keep positive messages flowing through the organization, mistakenly shut off the valve of bad news. While the intent may be good, the outcome is almost always bad. In filtering out bad news, too far east is west.