Someone asked me the following question about addressing problems early before they grow:

“What would you suggest a person do when they work for people who don’t listen to warnings? When this happens, I find it difficult to express concern when they overreact and almost put you in their crosshairs for speaking up.”

Here’s how I answered:

“The behavior of your manager is called ‘shooting the messenger.’ In ancient times, the story is told of a king who received news that a key battle had been lost. Because the information possibly meant the end of his reign, he chose to deny its reality and ignored it. He burned the message and killed the messenger. It didn’t stop the inevitable.”

Discouraging truth-telling and discussion by killing the messenger is harmful to the long-term success of the organization. Over time, the organization clams up and no one speaks out.

So what do you do?

  • Confront it. Quietly. During a time when there is no pressure, share your observation. You could say something like this: “At times, I have questions or concerns about some of the decisions being made. I feel a duty to raise them, but it seems to make you angry. I feel myself withdrawing. It would be more productive to discuss difficult matters without fear of offending you.”
  • Team up in the confrontation. Perhaps there is someone who has the leader’s ear. You could share your concerns and enlist their help in finding a solution.
  • Back down. Stay quiet. While I don’t recommend it, it is a strategy. But I believe it can lead to growing discontent. Eventually, you may decide to leave.
  • Find another place. We all work best when we feel free to contribute, our ideas are valued, and our contributions make a difference. Life is short. Spending it in a frustrating work environment can lead to an unsettled life.”

I want to tell you that I’ve never “shot the messenger,” but that wouldn’t be true. Sometimes emotions get the best of me, and most others too.

But I know that if we inhibit open discussion and courageous communication, we won’t be as successful as we can be. So, I try to listen patiently and learn, especially when I don’t like it.

I had a teacher once who said it is better to trust the one who always criticizes than the one who always cheers. I like praise more than most, but the contrarian plays a valued role.