More than 2,000 years ago in Greece, a playwright named Sophocles wrote about strong-willed, highly principled characters who encountered seemingly insurmountable ethical problems. Sophocles’ interest was in individuals who would not compromise their principles, even when they understood the obvious advantages of doing so. When he is remembered at all, it is for having said “No man loves the bearer of bad tidings.”
In those days, armies exchanged messages via couriers who passed back and forth between the warring groups. The ethical principles of the times guaranteed such messengers be granted safe passage between the opposing sides. Sophocles’ neighbor Plutarch wrote about one ruler who didn’t like a message he was brought and broke the agreement by cutting off the messenger’s head. After that, no one dared to bring him any message he might not like to hear, and those around him only flattered him. Stripped of all information about threats, setbacks, and losses, his generals were unable to adapt to changing circumstances, and his armies suffered.
Why do we blame messengers?
They’re not the ones responsible for the bad news, so why do we “shoot the messenger?” Everydaypsych.com says we want to understand why the bad news is happening to us and the easiest answer is to blame the one who brought the message to our attention. This is as silly as blaming the rain on someone who said it looks like rain. It is obvious that this strategy is wrong, but we all know how easily people are able to reject thoughts and ideas they don’t like. Denial doesn’t change reality, doesn’t make anything better, and leaves people helpless.
Psychology Today says “Don’t Be the Messenger.”
Gee, thanks. We’ve all seen many people who take the easy way out – keep your head down, keep quiet.
But what if you can’t?
What if you’re a researcher who is obligated to deliver objective research reports and presentations? Thorough investigations are designed to be early warning systems and uncover negative situations while they are still small and manageable, in effect, allowing decision-makers to head them off at the pass. Those who are unaware of problems are the ones who get blindsided.
You can lead a horse to water.
How study sponsors and decision-makers react to messages that contain bad news is largely a function of their corporate culture. Author Bruce Sanford says “Shooting messengers may be a time-honored emotional response to unwanted news, but it is not a very effective method of remaining well-informed.”
- A client group asked us to do some concept testing with what they thought was a really great idea. Our research reported consumers thought it was a really awful idea. Executives ignored the consumer objections and went ahead with the service. It lost a lot of money and disappeared for the very reasons the research had discovered beforehand.
- A client asked us to conduct some taste tests. Our research reported that consumers disliked everything about his new product. The furious executive dragged his senior staff into his office, and in front of us, bullied them to agree with his position that the testing was horribly flawed and the research should be rejected in its entirety. Executives went ahead with the product. It lost a lot of money and disappeared for the very reasons the research had discovered beforehand.
- A client asked us to conduct some field tests of a proposed product line extension against half a dozen competitors. Our research reported that consumers rated the proposed line extension dead last on every dimension and against every competitor. Executives condemned the research and went ahead with the product. It lost a lot of money and disappeared for the very reasons the research had discovered beforehand.
The wise go looking for problems.
The Boss at a company historically regarded for the quality of their products was skeptical about the endless stream of too-good-to-be-true reports his handlers had been feeding him. He asked us to take a closer look into customer experiences. Our research found twice as many of his customers had a disappointing experience with sales, service, and customer support than his gatekeeping executives had been telling him. Each of the problem areas the research identified were fixed before they could get any worse. Their reputation for quality remains intact.
Every management strategy is a best guess, never perfectly clear or fully confident.
Every best guess benefits from insights that challenge, confirm, or contradict existing beliefs. I share the conviction of those who believe one of the key functions of research is to dissent from the popular when it is necessary, important, and warranted by the data. There are a few who agree, but most will bury as much of the bad news as they can and downplay the rest.
As the Arkansas Philosopher liked to say, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remind yourself your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”