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Shooting The Messenger

Posted by Chuck Csizmar | Posted in Articles, Universal Compensation | Posted on 12-04-2017

Tags: , , , ,


I Don't Know, by Lourdes NightingaleNobody likes to hand out bad news, especially face-to-face.  Not only is it depressing and possibly demoralizing, but you have to look people in the eye when they get punched in the proverbial gut.  This awful experience is personally troubling if you’re the one holding the unpopular or unwanted news and if your senior leadership are the ones whose day you’re going to ruin.


In days of yore (a long time ago) the messengers sent between feudal kingdoms were considered inviolate.  As these personal representatives were the chosen form of communication back then, the thought was that, if you tortured or killed the fellow because you didn’t like what they had to say, then any return messenger you ultimately sent would almost certainly face the same treatment.

But that logical conclusion didn’t erase the concern felt by medieval couriers standing in hostile territory as they recited words certain to anger powerful warlords.

Not an assignment to be envied, for sure.

Less Dramatic Today, But . . . .

Fortunately, the chances of being drawn and quartered for delivering an unwanted message has diminished over time.  It almost never happens anymore.  But that comforting thought hasn’t completely erased the fear element for those standing before a disheartened and possible angry senior manager.

While a torturous dismemberment or death sentence may be off the table as an option in today’s business world, it’s still a risky business being the bearer of bad news to senior leaders. There’s the blame game to consider, the taint of forever being associated with news they didn’t want to hear, a stinging blow to your professional credibility, and perhaps worst, a career-damaging stigma that could weaken important relationships and provide you with all too much negative exposure.

In the world of office politics being the messenger harboring bad or unwanted news is still a position most would want to avoid – if at all possible.

Big Boy/Girl Pants

However, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.  You may not have created a recessionary economy, a highly competitive industry, government regulations that increase fixed costs, a difficult organized labor environment, or a host of other external factors that are considered bad news to senior leadership.  It may not be your fault that the payroll is bloated, that turnover is spiking, that good talent is increasingly hard to find, and that your reward programs are not effective (enough).  But you may still find yourself to be the one standing there, darkening senior management’s day with a bitter pill of uncomfortable reality.

No one ever said that your job would be a bed of roses, did they?  No one said that there wouldn’t be a downside to that promotional increase and nice new title you received, did they?

So man up (or similar gender neutral phraseology) and when the time occurs (and it will, eventually) face the music.  Don’t pass the deed off to subordinates.  Don’t mumble the words.  Don’t blame someone (anyone) else.  Don’t  try to confuse the message with elaborate language, double speak or uncommon terminology.  Just cut to the chase and say what needs to be said with unvarnished directness.

And you know what?  You might get a few points out of the experience after all.  Following an immediate negative response from your audience, cooler minds may eventually prevail.  Honesty and direct talk are still virtues in most quarters, as is taking responsibility when the buck stops with you.

If there are opportunities to right a wrong, to solve a problem or to redirect efforts down a better strategic pathway, speak up.  Don’t just drop the “bomb” and leave.  Here might be your best chance to be seen as a problem solver, a creative thinker, a guide to show the way out of the forest.

Take the opportunity to make lemonade from the lemons in your hand.

With any luck, they won’t shoot the messenger.

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