What If We Stopped Shooting The Messenger?

How many people put off delivering the bad news to senior management at General Motors while the now infamous ignition-switch problem festered?  The same question can be asked about the appointment queues at VA hospitals


“Nobody likes a snitch,“ most of us have been taught as children.  “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  “Loose lips sink ships” and smart people supposedly “play along to get along.”

At some point, though, the employee you really need is the one whose frankness saves the company from self-destruction, embarrassment, stupidity or causing harm.

What does it take to create a culture where the messenger isn’t punished, one where bad news about a division or the entire organization -- delivered early and with constructive purpose -- results in recognition and perhaps promotion and where “loose cannon” can even serve as a compliment.  

Some organizations have code phrases that essentially mean “Listen up!”  When those phrases are spoken, everyone is obliged to attend as objectively as possible, including the people at the top.  “This is something you need to hear” may suffice in some workplaces.  Such phrases are not to be used lightly or frequently.  But when needed, they can pry open bottlenecks to communication.

Most organizations have at least the appearance of grievance procedures, and lines of seniority are to be considered.  But when one follows those procedures or lines to convey information or insight about a significant issue, and the trail still leads nowhere, there must be a channel via which serious concerns supported by credible evidence can be brought to the fore.

Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, intent on fostering greater openness in the military service where rape continues to increase, has repeatedly and doggedly called for change.  Yet, as Bateman has stated, it took angry outsiders in the form of civilian moviemakers plus someone on the inside who finally “got it,” to adopt a film (“The Invisible War”) as a tool for change. Despite progress, Bateman has not dropped the issue, in part because, to him, provoking change on this matter is consistent with duty:

In confronting the problem of rape and sexual abuse in the military we are defending the nation. Every servicewoman damaged by some power-crazed jerk is an individual who is a part of the military that we are at risk of losing. The service that all of us in uniform render to the nation costs a lot to develop. You cannot just walk in off the street and start being a trained professional soldier. Each of us -- men and women -- are national assets when we wear the uniform.

There’s a big difference between snitching for grins and saving a division or company from moral ineptitude or self-destruction.  When that difference comes into focus from the top of an organization down, when messengers of critical information not only survive but also thrive, when such risks are clearly rewarded, that’s when nipping a developing crisis in the bud becomes the norm.  That is when real change stands a chance.

photo/Hanneliese/Shutterstock.com

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