Top 20 Bad Habits CEOs Need to Eliminate, #18
Plutarch's Lives, written at the beginning of the second century AD, states: "The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus' coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him".[i]We humans have flaws in our interaction skills and when they are repeated these flaws become bad habits that are unnoticeable to ourselves. Tigranes response to bad news did not spring from logical thought but from an unthinking habit.
Punishing the messenger is the misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually trying to help.
OK, so you have never actually executed anyone. But how many times have you raised your voice in irritation in response to some new problem that has arisen?
I can remember times when I was in a bad mood because of challenges at work. And when I was “down” or grumpy and snapped at my staff, then they probably wanted to avoid me. I was pushing people away from me right at the time the company needed all hands on deck, right when we needed people to provide more information and even challenge my thinking.
When people bring you bad news, whether you already know it or not, there is really only one good response and that is: “Thank You”. Anything else and you run the risk of cutting off future vital information. Too many times leaders are so disheartened by bad news that their reaction, an unthinking bad habit, is to lash out at the person in front of them.
Beware the Corollary, when your subordinates do not know you, the fear of being punished may prevent them from providing information. Private Equity firms in particular have noted that when a new CEO takes over an existing company, employees can be reluctant to share information. Not knowing, people are afraid they might tick off the new boss. In this type of situation, the new executive must take strong positive steps to demonstrate that providing accurate and complete information will be rewarded, not punished.
# 18 on my list of bad habits that leaders have is Punishing the messenger.[ii]
[i] Plutarch's Life of Lucullus (Dryden transl.), paragraph 25; a slightly different account (the messenger was hanged) is in Appian's Mithradatic Wars, paragraph 84 (as cited in Wikipedia)
[ii] 20 bad habits from Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. (pg. 40)