August 25, 2015 Anil Saxena

Learned Helplessness: Kill The Messenger Management


Softening bad news has become an art form. It even has a word to explain it spinning.    Smart dedicated people purposely alter (spin) how they communicate data to make bad survey results – Employee Engagement, Customer Satisfaction, Exit Interview, etc. – seem positive or at least “not that bad”.

Being unable to honestly relate results and subsequent trends is a symptom of Organizational Learned Helplessness (OLH).

Learned Helplessness occurs when people in an organization believe there is nothing they can do to make a difference.   Performance spirals downward.   Communication and respect for others decreases and people fall back on primitive self-protection behaviors.

Taking frustration the sharing bad news is a common trait in many organizations.   It is prime symptom of Organizational Learned Helplessness because somewhere in the organization’s history telling the truth became a bad idea.  This time honored tradition is called Kill the Messenger Management.

Unfamiliar with this form of management?  Here is a simple description:

A leader belittling or reprimanding a junior person (anyone that reports to them) because they deliver results or news that is not favorable.  The junior person is not in control of the results (they are not the thought police or enforcers of any kind) and therefore are simply reporting.

We have all seen it. It is not to say that you should be unkind or demeaning in delivering results.  Even (and especially if) they are bad.  But, killing the messenger does nothing but tell people that the truth is only good when it’s favorable.

Over time, organizations that suffer from Learned Helplessness almost never let data, results or news go out without “spinning it” or softening it or whatever colloquialism is used to say “change it to make it sound better”.  Therein, leaders never really hear the real unfettered truth. This is one of the big reasons that consultants are brought in to uncover why things are really going awry (if they are).

It is not easy to tell the truth, but in the long run dealing with bad news or results head on enables the organization to learn and recover quickly.  Sometimes, it even makes them more effective. The process will take some work, as most positive things do (think diet and exercise). Here’s a simple truth baring process:

Making it easier/better to tell the truth:

1. Build the Ark – There is a tendency to be afraid to tell bad news because bad news makes people feel bad when there is nothing that can do about it.  It can leave the person(s) receiving the message feel as if there is no hope.  That makes them either angry or depressed. The best way to avoid this is to couple the bad news with a solution or method to deal with the bad news.  This takes a little extra work.  But it’s important that bad news isn’t just left out there without something that can be done about it.

2. Prepare leaders  – Let senior leaders know that the news/results are not good.  It’s never a good idea to blind-side leaders with bad news.  So make sure they are aware of it, potential rationale for why it is bad and what could be done about it.

3. Let everyone know the “real” results QUICKLY – One of the worst things that can be done with bad news is to hide it or “shape it to not sound so bad”.  It’s important that accountability for the results at every level is discussed.  Don’t point the finger at mysterious forces out of the organization’s control  – “The economy” or “Outsourcing”.  Of course those things will have influence, but they are not the only (or sometimes even the primary) reasons for the bad news/results.

4. Take action – This is the most critical part of the process. Inaction is a contributing factor to on going Organizational Learned Helplessness and why employees don’t trust “management”.  When an issue is uncovered, action must be taken.  Organizational inertia has a tendency to stifle action that may disrupt the status quo.  However, if nothing is done to impact bad news or results, people see ongoing failure as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Then the next time bad news/results are found they don’t believe anything will be done about it and so its better not to admit them at all…sound familiar?  Taking action doesn’t have to be bold or splashy, but it must be done.
◦ Wonder why employees don’t think engagement matters? Look at the lack of action from previous results
◦ Wonder why employees don’t believe that the consultants were really brought in to make the organization more effective? Look at the lower earnings that were released or the layoffs that occurred after the last consultants were brought in

If there is not a commitment to follow though with action, talking about the bad news is not worth it.  If there is not commitment to taking action on results, conducting an employee engagement survey is counterproductive.

5.  Follow up – don’t just leave the news/results lingering in employees memories. Follow up with news of the action taken.  Then ask for more input, conduct another survey, etc.
The truth is a vital light to shine on real issues within the organization.  It is so important to tell the truth.  Because no matter how much we try to hide it, the truth always comes out (think Enron). Dealing with issues/problems head-on makes the organization more credible and builds employee trust of leaders.  Not telling the truth will continue the shaping, double speak and distrust found in many organizations.
Have you seen instances of “kill the messenger management”? What are you doing to help encourage more openness about results?  Please let me know.

Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.

Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.


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