Sharing Success

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Nobody in business likes hearing bad news, especially when things are busy or stressful. That said, how leaders choose to respond to bad news speaks to the true culture of the organization.

On the one hand, if mistakes and problems are actually welcomed as opportunities to further improve quality and consistency, team members learn over time to view mistakes in the same way and share them as soon as possible.

On the other, if leaders tend to “shoot the messenger” by reacting poorly to bad news, they train their teams to hide mistakes (no one likes to be yelled at). Unfortunately, problems that get “buried” tend to grow more damaging over time.

The reality is that mistakes happen. It is how you handle them which determines whether they help your business grow and improve or whether you simply relive them over and over.

“Shooting the messenger” is unfair to messengers. Studies show that when businesses systematically improve quality over time, most errors that happen are not the result of human carelessness. Instead, they come from sources which just have not yet been identified and fixed.

It is also short-sighted because it alienates the very team members we depend on to help us improve!

That is why it is important to coach your leaders in advance how to handle bad news from employees and also to lead by your own example.

So even when things are busiest and bad news is most unwelcome, it is important for your leaders to genuinely thank team members for identifying and quickly alerting them to potential problems. Take a deep breath and be thankful that the problem didn’t get buried.

“Mistakes are the schoolbooks by which we learn.”

I don’t know where this saying originally comes from. But in our company, we have framed copies hanging throughout our offices to remind our team at all levels to view every mistake not as something to hide, but as a golden opportunity to further improve.

The reason that mistakes represent profitable improvement opportunities is their repetitive nature. That is, until their root cause is identified and addressed, the same problems keep happening over and over. And in addition, solving root causes boosts consistency and reduces costly rework over time, not to mention that repetitive errors tend to be frustrating.

So the key to reducing frustration is figuring out how to prevent their causes going forward, rather than simply solving the symptoms at hand.

Take, for example, how someone responds to a slow leak in their car’s tire. If they focus on “solving” the symptom of low air pressure, visiting a service station to refill the tire with air guarantees the problem will recur or perhaps even worsen into a flat tire.

If, instead, the driver takes the time to address the root cause (a nail in their tire), their extra effort will be rewarded with smooth sailing going forward.

Besides encouraging team members to identify and alert you to potential problems, another step in reinforcing a team “problem-solving” culture is coaching individual team members to actively think about how the problems they discover might be better solved. After all, chances are that they know the particular task or activity better than you do anyway!

One way to do this when team members surface a problem is to answer their question of “What should I do?” with your own question of “What do you think we should do?”

If their solution is a good one, empower it and praise their judgment. If not, ask questions to help them recognize other important factors that might not have been considered.

In my experience, team members encouraged in this way begin making better decisions and often begin solving (or even preventing) smaller issues on their own.

Nobody likes bad news. But, in my experience, getting your leaders and team to embrace mistakes as opportunities, not failings, helps focus everyone on further improvement together … which is a really good thing!