Shooting the Messenger

Shooting the messenger is a common – yet intriguing behavior commonly observed in our daily interactions. Whether it’s an unsettling report at the office, a harsh truth from a friend, or distressing news delivered by a loved one, we often find ourselves instinctively pointing blame at the bearer of bad tidings. But why do we indulge in this age-old habit? What drives us to shift responsibility onto those who merely deliver unwelcome news?

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What is Shooting the Messenger?

“Shooting the messenger” is a figurative expression that refers to the act of assigning blame to the bearer of unfavorable news – despite their lack of responsibility for the content they deliver. The roots of this phrase may be traced back to ancient Greece, where messengers were sometimes met with violent consequences for bringing unwelcome tidings.

Throughout history, the concept has been deeply ingrained in literature and culture, exemplified in stories such as Plutarch’s Lives, where a king named Tigranes beheaded a messenger who delivered news of an enemy’s arrival. Similarly, in Sophocles’ Antigone, a character remarks, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Even in contemporary times, the notion of shooting the messenger remains relevant. Also referred to by other names such as killing/ attacking/ punishing the messenger, this destructive behavior is frequently observed when people receive distressing news – and their first action is to instinctively lash out at the one telling them that information, rather than addressing the underlying issue responsibly.

Below are a few real-life examples of shooting the messenger:

  • An employee receives notice of being laid off from their job. He/she then directs their anger towards their manager or supervisor, despite the fact that the decision to lay them off is beyond the manager’s control.
  • A worker receives a disappointing grade on a feedback evaluation. They react by yelling at the one who hands the result to them, overlooking the other person’s role in assessing their performance.
  • A dissatisfied customer might vent their frustration at a customer service representative, who is merely trying to assist them, despite the representative having no influence over the product’s quality or the company’s policies.
  • etc.

Shooting the Messenger

Blaming the bearer of bad tidings

Why Do People Like to Shoot the Messenger?

Far too often in life, we find ourselves directing blame towards the bearer of unfavorable information. The question here is: Why do we want to do that?

The inclination to “shoot the messenger” may be attributed to several psychological and emotional factors that influence human behavior in response to bad news:

  1. Sense-Making & Attribution

A study by Harvard University revealed that when confronted with unexpected things, people often seek to make sense of the situation – in order to regain a sense of control and understanding. This natural need for coherence and predictability is what drives us to look for someone to blame – even if the messenger is not responsible for the content of the news.

Human cognition tends to attribute negative motives or incompetence to those who deliver unwelcome information, as they are seen as the bearers of disturbing changes that challenge established expectations or norms.

  1. Fear of change

Bad news often implies impending changes that may be either unsettling or intimidating. The fear of uncertainty is a common trigger of defensive reactions – in this sense, shooting the messenger becomes a way to indirectly express resistance to the impending alterations.

By directing frustration at the messenger, we are attempting to resist/ deny the necessity of change, seeking to maintain the status quo.

  1. Defense mechanism

Some view the act of shooting the messenger as a defense mechanism employed to cope with uncomfortable or threatening information. This defense mechanism allows individuals to avoid confronting the reality or the actual source of the problem.

Instead of addressing the core issue, they redirect their emotions towards the messenger, thereby alleviating some of the distress that arises from the bad news.

  1. Expression of anger

The reception of bad news often triggers feelings of anger and frustration. People may then direct their anger towards the person perceived as responsible for the distressing situation – or they might simply feel angry at the circumstances or the world in general.

In such instances, the messenger inadvertently becomes a convenient target for the pent-up emotions, despite their lack of direct involvement in causing the negative things.

Shooting the Messenger

Shooting the messenger is nothing new – and yet, it’s popular

We Shoot the Messenger More Often Than We Think

(This section – along with the “Thank you” part below – is compiled with inspiration from Habit #18 discussed in the bestseller ‘What got you here won’t get you there‘ of world-renowned executive coach, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith)

The act of shooting the messenger goes beyond overt acts of retaliation or angry outbursts. It encompasses a range of behaviors – where we fail to recognize, appreciate, or listen to those delivering information. Most of the time, we are unaware of how frequently we engage in this detrimental behavior throughout our day-to-day interactions.

Beyond the obvious instances – like punishing a whistleblower or lashing out at an employee for delivering unwelcome news, the act of killing the messenger occurs in various other subtler ways. Particularly, it emerges in the moments of inconvenience or disappointment – when we express our frustration or displeasure without considering the impact on the news bearer.

For example, when our assistant informs us that the boss is too busy to see us, we may respond with a fleeting snort of disgust. Though the assistant is not responsible for their boss’s availability, our reaction  may prompt him/her to view us in a negative light.

Similarly, in meetings, a seemingly insignificant expletive used to express the boss’ frustration when hearing about a deal falling apart can send the wrong message to the team, discouraging open communication about future challenges.

This pattern extends beyond bad news to instances where people try to offer helpful warnings or advice. Whether it’s a red light ahead while driving or mismatched socks before heading out the door, we may react defensively or dismissively to those trying to assist us.

Punishing the messenger is like taking the worst elements of not giving recognition and hogging the credit and passing the buck and making destructive comments and not thanking or listening – and then adding anger to the mix.

Marshall Goldsmith

Attacking the Messenger

Ignoring the problem – Shooting the messenger

Why is It Bad to Shoot the Messenger?

Shooting the messenger may seem like an instinctive response for some. However, regardless of the circumstances, this reaction is neither justified nor beneficial. In fact, it carries several detrimental consequences that hinder problem-solving, effective communication, and the fostering of healthy relationships.

  • It is biased and unfair

Killing the messenger represents a biased and unfair approach to handling information. By focusing on the emotions and impressions of the news bearer – rather than objectively assessing the message itself, we are essentially engaging in cognitive dissonance – thereby preventing ourselves from accepting reality or adapting our beliefs based on evidence and logic.

Moreover, blaming or harming the messenger overlooks the fact that they are not the cause of the bad news; they are merely the conveyors of information. This form of scapegoating fails to address the true source of the problem.

By shooting the messenger, you validate the message.

  • It is illogical and irrational

This behavior is fundamentally illogical and irrational – because the messenger bears no responsibility for the content or quality of the message they deliver. Punishing the messenger does not alter the reality of the situation – nor does it provide a solution.

What it does is CONFUSING the correlation between the messenger and the message with causation, unjustly assuming negative intentions or abilities on the messenger’s part. Such a fallacy is what undermines the principles of charitable interpretation and effective communication.

  • It hinders information flow

When lashing out at the bearer of bad news, we are building up an environment of fear and hostility that discourages members from delivering or seeking critical information in the future. As a result, vital feedback and data necessary for informed decision-making are then suppressed, hindering problem-solving and leading to missed opportunities.

  • It damages relationships and trust

Shooting the messenger damages the relationship between the bearer and the receiver – it creates an atmosphere of fear, silence, and mistrust. When others fear negative repercussions for conveying difficult news, they may withhold crucial information, leading to the perpetuation of underlying problems and a lack of open communication.

Punishing the Messenger

We cannot justify shooting the messenger

Why is the Shooting the Messenger Approach Detrimental to an Organization?

The act of shooting the messenger is not only damaging to interpersonal relationships – it also poses significant threats to the health and functionality of an organization. For business leaders, embracing such a short-sighted and destructive method of management often brings about far-reaching consequences – including:

  • Undermining trust

When managers engage in the bad habit of punishing the messenger, they essentially cultivate a culture of fear, silence, and mistrust. Employees, colleagues, and stakeholders become reluctant to voice concerns, share feedback, or report problems – for fear of retaliation or negative consequences. This breakdown of trust erodes the foundation of open and honest communication, stifling the flow of vital information necessary for addressing challenges and fostering collaboration.

  • Crippling communication

Honest communication is essential for effective decision-making, problem-solving, and innovation. When people are met with hostility or blame for delivering unwelcome news, the quality and quantity of information flow within the organization suffer. Consequently, vital insights and opportunities for improvement may be missed, impeding the team’s progress and growth.

  • Discouraging learning

Learning and growth within an organization depend on the members’ ability to acknowledge, understand, and address the root causes of challenges/ setbacks. Shooting the messenger hampers this learning process – by suppressing others’ capacity to make sense of unexpected or unfavorable events. Without a willingness to confront and learn from mistakes, everyone remains stagnant and unable to adapt or improve their performance.

  • Encouraging hostility

When punishing the messenger, leaders build up a hostile environment where employees fear sharing bad news or critical feedback. As a result, issues may go unaddressed, allowing them to fester and exacerbate over time. A culture of fear and apprehension stifles creativity and innovation, limiting an organization’s potential for growth and development.

Read more: Understanding Leadership – How to Be a Better Leader

Shooting the Messenger in organization

Business leaders who shoot the messenger

How to Stop Shooting the Messenger

Putting an end to the harmful habit of shooting the messenger requires conscious efforts – plus the adoption of a more constructive approach to handling bad news. By implementing the following tips and best practices, individuals and organizations may be better equipped to create a more supportive and productive environment:

  1. Take a deep breath

It is natural to feel a surge of emotions when confronted with bad news. However, what we can do is taking a moment to compose ourselves before reacting impulsively. With just a few deep breaths, one should be able to regain their sense of calm – and the clarity needed to respond rationally, instead of demonstrating regrettable actions or words.

  1. Spend time processing the news

Upon receiving bad tidings, allow yourself some time to process and reflect on the situation. Seek support from someone you trust (e.g: a coach/ mentor/ accountability partner) – or take some solitary minutes to contemplate the implications of the news. This reflection may provide invaluable insights – as well as enable us to come up with a more measured response.

  1. Separate the messenger from the message

Recognize that the messenger is not responsible for the content of the news they deliver. They are merely the conduit through which information is relayed. Blaming or resenting them is counterproductive and does not address the underlying issue at all.

  1. Ask questions for clarity

If the reasons behind the bad news are unclear, ask the messenger for clarification. Engaging in open dialogue can foster understanding – as well as reinforce the fact that the messenger is not at fault.

  1. Show respect

Even if the news is unwelcome, we must learn to treat the messenger with respect and courtesy. Appreciating their role in sharing information, even when it is difficult, contributes to building a culture where individuals feel comfortable being transparent in all situations.

  1. Be mindful of personal biases and emotions

Recognize your own biases and emotional reactions when receiving bad news. Avoid projecting blame onto the messenger for circumstances they are not accountable for. Instead, acknowledge that shooting the messenger is a form of cognitive dissonance that hinders growth and learning.

  1. Cultivate empathy and gratitude

Approach the messenger with empathy and gratitude for their honesty, courage, and willingness to help by delivering difficult news. Consider that they may have good intentions or be working towards resolving the problem.

  1. Focus on the message content

Evaluate the message objectively and logically, concentrating on the information itself rather than the messenger’s emotions or impressions. Use the news as an opportunity for learning, improvement, or adaptation – rather than viewing it as a threat or challenge.

Read more: Emotional Intelligence – Strategies for Harnessing Its Power

The Ultimate Solution – Learning to Say “Thank You”

When it comes to breaking the cycle of shooting the messenger, the ultimate solution lies in a simple yet powerful phrase: “Thank you.” This expression of gratitude can significantly transform how we receive input, feedback, and assistance from others.

Instead of lashing out or becoming defensive when faced with advice or assistance, saying “Thank you” serves as a gesture of acknowledgement and appreciation. As simple as it is, it acknowledges the contribution and goodwill of the messenger, reinforcing a culture that values open communication and fosters constructive feedback.

Implementing this change in behavior requires self-awareness and practice. When someone offers guidance or support, pause before reacting impulsively. Take a moment to recognize the potential benefits of their input and the fact that it comes at no cost. Gratitude can create an atmosphere of respect and encouragement, making people feel valued and more willing to contribute positively.

The practice of saying “Thank you” does not imply perfection; rather, it signifies a willingness to learn and grow.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith once shared about the power of saying “thank you” in stopping the habit of shooting the messenger. As a frequent traveler, he often finds himself rushing to the airport on Sunday afternoons or Monday mornings.

On one such occasion, his wife, Lyda, warned him about an upcoming red light while they were on the road. Instead of acknowledging her concern, he snapped at her in frustration.

I know there’s a red light! Don’t you think I can see? I can drive as well as you can!

During his flight to New York, Dr. Goldsmith reflected on the incident. He realized that Lyda’s simple warning had the potential to save many lives – including their own and other innocent people on the road. It was a valuable piece of advice that came at no cost. It was at that moment that he recognized the importance of expressing gratitude for such valuable inputs.

Upon landing, feeling guilty and remorseful, he called Lyda to share his revelation, and promised to respond differently the next time she offered him driving advice – by simply saying, “Thank you.” Despite her initial skepticism, Dr. Goldsmith remained committed to this new approach.

Months later, when the same situation happened again, he put his promise into action – by responding with genuine gratitude (even though it took an effort to restrain his initial reaction).

The underlying message is clear: When someone offers us valuable advice or feedback, which could have a significant positive impact and costs us nothing, the best response is a heartfelt “Thank you.”

The next time you receive advice or assistance, consider the significance of the potential benefits. Abandon the reflex to shoot the messenger and, instead, respond with genuine appreciation. In doing so, we can move towards fostering a healthier and more productive atmosphere within our personal and professional lives.

Shooting the messenger video – by Marshall Goldsmith

Read more: Not Saying Thank You – Why Do We Often Fail to Express Gratitude?

Shooting the Messenger Quotes

Below are some classical quotes regarding shooting the messenger:

Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.

Shakespeare

Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?

Galatians 4:16

Some people want to shoot the messenger, as if I were the one who caused the bad news to begin with.

Harlan Ellison

Life has taught me not to shoot messengers, no matter how bad and discouraging the news.

Louis Yako

Final Thoughts

The phenomenon of “shooting the messenger” represents a deeply ingrained human tendency that hinders effective communication, fosters mistrust, and stifles growth. Far too often, we find ourselves resorting to blame and hostility towards those delivering bad news, even when they themselves bear no responsibility for the content conveyed. By understanding the psychological motivations behind this behavior and its far-reaching consequences, we can begin to break free from this destructive habit – and pave the way for a brighter future.

Other resources you might be interested in:

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