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!

1 comment:

  1. How wonderfully put. I've seen the Messenger of Doom in my employed past. This person felt more important and useful no doubt knowing more than anyone else about everyone's business.
    They did less and had more pull with the higher ups and we lived in fear of being the target du jour.
    It's one of the reasons I'm self employed. If I'd had this knowledge then and a sane consultant like yourself, I'd have been more productive as would my excellent and beleagered co-workers.