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Shooting Messengers Makes Us Work Dumber

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By Jared Sandberg, The Wall Street Journal Online

RISMEDIA, Sept. 20, 2007-(WSJ.com)-It was a perfect case of shooting the messenger, even if it seemed to Elliott Gordon like a protracted mugging.

Last year, the former sales associate watched the fallout after one of his colleagues made a big sale that faltered. The salesman was assured that the goods would be shipped from a supplier, but only half of the inventory arrived.

A receiving clerk had to tell the salesman, who responded to the bad news by vowing to the clerk, “I will ruin your life,” and then throwing him against the wall. He then kicked his own cubicle wall, “which in turn collapsed onto his neighbor’s cubicle wall and thus started a domino effect of wrecking everyone’s office in the row,” Gordon recalls.

The salesman then threw the clerk on top of the collapsed wall and used his phone receiver to smash his own computer screen, which popped like a blown light bulb.

“I just sat, staring at my computer screen with the cubicle wall to my right tented over my head,” says Gordon.

Everyone knows blaming the blameless bearer of bad news doesn’t help, but we do it anyway. It’s a symptom of the ill-aimed, trigger-happy nature of office blame, and the gulf between knowing a problem and solving it. Among the unwanted consequences: The shooter gets a one-way ticket from reality.

We do it mostly because we’re stupid, says management consultant Marshall Goldsmith, for whom the issue is a pet peeve. “It’s easy to know theories. It’s hard to change behavior,” he says.

Great success in business, he reminds us, hasn’t always included growing up. “Have you ever read a history book that indicates that when you give men lots of status and money and power, they begin to act sane and rational?” he asks. “I never read that book.”

Also, some jobs are easier to mistake for skeet: waiters, customer-service personnel, employee relations and anyone who has to convey insurance-policy information, for example. Those middlemen aren’t responsible for disruptive decisions or business failures. But they’re the poor souls held accountable.

Pearl Gabel, who works part time as a medical-clinic secretary, has to tell people all day long that the clinic doesn’t take their insurance. She knows people are sick and exhausted, so she takes whatever gets thrown at her — usually “darts of guilt.” She tells them, “Sorry, I’m just a secretary, I don’t make the rules.”

But even Gabel finds herself shooting messengers. The week before last she went to a doctor’s office for a five-minute visit. It would cost $410, the receptionist informed her.

“I huffed at her. The doctor wasn’t available to huff at,” she says.

Big bureaucracies are set up to place human barriers around decision makers. Today, there’s the added protection of automated phones and Web sites that bury contact information for real people. So, the buck stops in the lower rungs of the hierarchy.

The government agency where Andrew Mentzer once worked sent lower-level staffers to break the news to clients that they didn’t get approved. He used to beg them not to shoot the messenger. “The true irony of the situation is sending in someone who is less qualified to address a hostile situation, and that creates more hostility, which makes it more likely for him to get shot,” he says.

The biggest business mistake Gerry Langeler ever made was when he presided over a software company working on a new version of its main product, which was increasingly late. When one vice president notified him that the release would be delayed again, Mr. Langeler made an example of the VP and fired him.

“I finally got so exasperated that I let the word go out that I simply did not want to hear any more ‘excuses’ about why the schedule could not be met,” he says.

He got his wish — and paid dearly for it. “No one ever came forward to tell me the truth about the status of the program for a very long time thereafter,” he says.

The software finally shipped two years later, and its development cost $100 million. He began to solicit bad news with a “Smokey the Bear Award” for employees who identified conflagrations before they spread. “If I hadn’t shot the messenger, we still would have lost a lot of that money,” he says, “but not all of it.”

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