Listen to the bearers of bad news

FT Comment while John Gapper is on sabbatical

We are sometimes admonished: “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Since there is rarely a logical reason to shoot messengers, such advice should not be needed. But it is, because bad news hurts, and organisations find it difficult to deliver such news to the person in charge.

Andrew Rawnsley’s account of Gordon Brown’s premiership has received attention for its claims that Mr Brown was abusive and physically threatening to his staff, grabbing lapels, stabbing upholstery with his pen and causing his advisers to cower for fear of violence. If true, that is disturbing – but few people will have found it surprising. High-status men sometimes do abuse that status.

I am worried not so much that Mr Brown may be beastly, but that he is cutting himself off from good advice. Mr Rawnsley describes Mr Brown’s fateful decision to pull back from a widely trailed snap election in late 2007. His inner circle waited until he was out of the room before agreeing that such a course would be disastrous. When the prime minister reconvened the meeting, however, this was not conveyed: “No one expressed a clear view. No one wanted responsibility for the decision.”

This is a more significant anecdote than any tale of flying spittle. Any leader needs frank advice, and the biggest obstacle to receiving it is often the leader himself. Even a polite and level-headed boss will be tempted to cut naysayers out of the loop. Knowing this, sensible juniors will avoid expressing criticism or grim tidings if at all possible.

“If you deliver bad news, you’re disempowering yourself,” says Professor David Sims of Cass Business School. “You’re less likely to be listened to in the future.” For some ambitious subordinates, this is a far worse fate than the threat of being thumped.

A new reality television show, Undercover Boss – which has migrated to the US after airing on Britain’s Channel 4 last summer – tries to tap into the dissonance between bosses and front-line staff by filming as a senior executive works incognito in the trenches. It is a delicious premise…

The remainder of the column is available here – includes lessons from Iraq.

Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.