Friday, September 30, 2011

Shoot the Messenger

Recently, I got a puzzling call from one of my favorite HR directors asking me what he should do with this group of engineers who just could not get along. The company’s product was behind because the engineers were arguing so much that they could not get any work done. One of the engineers worked from home because he refused to come in to the office. He was considering a “hostile workplace” claim. I dug into the situation and asked a lot of questions, but a particular question was incredibly revealing: “Who tells you about all the problems between the engineers?”

We all have to pass on bad news now and then. Most of us do not enjoy it. But a few people thrive on it. Call them drama queens or gossip-mongers, but no matter the name, they tend to follow the same pattern. The pattern, from your perspective, will look like this:

A person enters your office or cubicle and mentions some bad news. Possibly even asks you to check it out.
You go to investigate the scene or take it up with the other party.
You find the other party just as upset as you are and it certainly looks like something went wrong. You note that this is a dysfunctional person or group. You may even develop a slight headache.
What happened behind the scenes was your so-called “messenger” went to the other party first and told him something equally horrifying. Now you are all trying to figure out a situation sown with lies and exaggerations. Confusion, conflict and upset are the goals of the messenger.

It is possible you do not want to believe such "messengers of doom” exist. But they do. Here are a few ways to detect those who quietly stir the pot:

The “messengers of doom” show no remorse in telling you how bad people or situations are. The vast majority of people do not like to mention that something or someone is bad, but these messengers do not hesitate to pass on the bad news. The usual lines are that someone is (or you are) in trouble or in danger.

Such people also love gossip, critical remarks and any statement which reduces the reputation of others. “Mary said you were the worst bookkeeper she’s ever worked with. Can you believe she said that?” The criticisms often come in streams and can be about multiple people. The favorite tactic is to spread what others supposedly said about you. Note that it is very likely untrue.

These messengers often stir up conflict between two people intentionally. If you see two people fighting relentlessly, ask each person who else has told them bad things about the other. You might find both people have heard from the messenger.
Usually, the "messengers of doom" go about their business quietly. They do not shout from the rooftops; they slink casually into offices, close the door and gossip. Or they slide up to you while you type and say, “Did you hear that . . .”

"Messengers of doom" can be intelligent or dull, in high or low places. When in executive roles, they will often gravitate toward the most productive or creative areas and try to create conflict there.

Why do the "messengers of doom" behave this way? Basically, there are two impulses in any person. One impulse is to do well and succeed. The other impulse is to give up or give in or destroy things. The “messengers of doom” have stronger negative impulses than they do positive ones. While this is a subject of great curiosity, the more important point is to recognize it when you see it. The easiest way to start your investigation for "messengers of doom" in your office is to ask yourself who brings you the most bad news and criticism. Then, before you do anything else, watch for a time and look for other patterns of gossip and criticism from that person. Just pay attention, ask questions and observe. The next step is to go to HR or someone who can help with the situation.

Back to our engineers. As it happens, the "messenger of doom" was one of the engineers who was planting gossip about the other engineers all over the group. He was so busy at it that his own work was suffering. Once he was detected and watched, it became quite obvious that he was creating conflicts between the other engineers. He was fired a week later and now the group harmoniously codes away. The engineer who worked from home comes in four days a week.

If your office has too much conflict or you get stressed or tired from dealing with others in your group, start to look for an "MD". Maybe you need to shoot the messenger*.

*Warning: “shoot” is a figurative term!


It all began in a blustery autumn about 8 years ago. I was coaching attorneys, doctors and other executives, and I was interested in understanding the traits of leadership. I had some natural leaders in the bunch and I was watching them and their behavior to see how they ran their offices and lives. I watched them give feedback, make project plans, and push for results. I did not use the scientific method, admittedly, but I started to shape some ideas about what made certain leaders stand out.

I formulated a hypothesis that good leaders were tough, meaning they were tenacious, hard-edged, persistent, and definitely on the unsympathetic side. Natural leaders who could get work done were hard on their people.

There was a leadership study released about the same time which showed that a “drive for results” was the most important determining factor in executive success. Drive is the operative word, right? I was getting somewhere. These are the “doers” in life, and if they have to take a few people out along the way, so be it. These natural leaders knew how to rant, stomp their feet, jump up and down, and GET RESULTS! Some of them were underhanded, sly, even a bit vicious, but I could never argue with those results.

I kept this viewpoint for a long time, coaching many people to be tough, to give difficult feedback with pitiless precision, to attack weak points in the organization with ardor. It worked to a great degree. Tough executives made names for themselves and sent their companies’ results into the stratosphere.

In the spring of 2009, after the economy was in full collapse, I noticed something that shook my stable data about executive competencies. These drivers, these “tough” executives were uniformly looking for work. Nearly all of them had been let go in the downturn. Interestingly, some others who had not taken the “toughness” route and had worked on other competencies were still around. I realized it might be time to reinvent my coaching style.

I started to take a different look at executives at that time. I dug into an objective look at the executives who survived the downturn, and I want to announce a new hypothesis. Executives who are tough with results but kind with people succeed longer and more often. Yes, I said it. Kindness matters.

A recent example gives us window into this. A CEO of a mid-sized company was down-sizing through all of 2009 and 2010, and he started to lose his hair rather rapidly. I asked him one day what was stressing him out so badly and he commented that firing people took an enormous toll. He never did stop thinking about how it affected the families and lives of those who had left. He was having trouble sleeping, and had seen his doctor for several stress tests. There was nothing physically wrong with him, but he looked and felt old and tired.

I decided to do an experiment with him and asked him to take several kind actions per week as his work allowed. I had him make a list of small kindnesses he could do that would have an impact on his workplace morale. One of his items was to institute a bagel breakfast for the administrative staff every other Friday. He paid for the bagels personally to keep the company budget stable. Then he made a point of complimenting the good work of his assistant on a more frequent basis. He listed 15 separate kind actions he could take over the coming months. Curiously, his hair stopped falling out. Even more curiously, his company started doing better too. A statistician could argue that the correlation is meaningless. That is fine by me. This is not a mathematical argument so much as a statement from the heart. Our experiment in kindness made a difference for everyone involved. Even me.

Perhaps you know an executive who is suffering personally for his own lack of kindness. He is not only hurting himself, but he is hurting his company. Being too “tough”, not having enough kindness, is no sign of strength. It is just a contributor to stress. The times we suffer most are the times we could have been just a bit nicer and we forever wonder why were weren’t.

After all, the last few years were not easy on anyone. We all had it rough. Consider this the next time you have a choice to make: what is the kind thing to do? The kind choice might just bring a smile to your face as well as the face of the person on the other end. After all, what are we doing here in this world anyway? Are we here to make it a miserable experience for others? Must we be hectic, texting-and-driving maniacs who only care about the next dollar? Are 10 more pallets delivered more important than the life and dignity of our fellow colleagues? It is about time we got our priorities straight in this country. Get results, certainly. Push hard for them. Hold high standards for your people. But hold them with kindness too. You might find it gets you further than you think.