This may be the last in the series of socio-technical Anti-Patterns (that is, things you want to avoid doing). Although I do think there is value in the Anti-Patterns (or I wouldn’t have bothered), I think the emphasis should be on the Patterns. It’s also personally depressing to write about Anti-Patterns right now because every time I write about how a particular type of behavior is to be avoided, it happens in real life! In abundance! Without apology!
This is why I also included the “what if” story about tennis. I really think people do not quite see how utterly dependent the vast majority of us are on complex, globe-spanning interactions which are, at bottom, based on mutual trust.
Once we erode that trust, literally millions will die even if war is avoided – which itself seems a remote possibility. It is a bit, I suppose, like the proverbial story about fish not “realizing” they are in water because it’s all they’ve ever known. People exist and thrive because of this network of trust. But they have no realization that it’s even there, let alone that it’s crucial. Once these networks are destroyed, they will be most likely be replaced by much simpler, less flexible ones based on power. There is a limit to how large these can grow because when possible, everyone will realize that such a network only really benefits the person at the top. So, they escape if they are able. Such power-based networks are also far less capable of innovation than ones based on trust, expertise and experience, fair incentives, the free flow of information. And, one of the main deficiencies in power-based networks is illustrated by the following Anti-Pattern.
Kill the Messenger
In the context of a crucial issue or task, important information is provided to the Person in Power: information that is critical in making the right decision or designing the proper course of action. When this information is delivered to the Person in Power (here abbreviated “PP”), they hear something they don’t like. So, they literally or figuratively, kill the messenger.
At first blush, this Anti-Pattern seems insane. Of course, it is unfair and unethical to kill the messenger, but how does it benefit the PP who does the killing? Here’s the surprising answer: It doesn’t! Not in the least! He or she is encouraging people to avoid providing him with crucial information. It doesn’t benefit PP, but it does benefits his or her Id-Baby. Some people would say it benefits his or her ego, but that is not really in keeping with Freud’s original meaning of the words Ego, Id, and Superego. Or, to say it another way, killing the messenger is not good for the PP’s body or the PP’s long-term prospects; in other words, not for the adult PP (if there is one). Killing the messenger is an infantile reaction of the inner child who believes everything must be the way they want it to be.
There is, however, another reason – an also insane reason – for the PP to kill the messenger. He is now free to discredit the messenger. This in turn, if carried out as a policy against the Message Sent by Messenger (here abbreviated “MSM”), people will begin to doubt the MSM and rely only on the PP for the “truth.” This reason shows a somewhat longer time-span of attention. After all, if people have a lot of experience with MSM that turns out to be quite useful information, it will take some time for the PP to destroy credibility of the MSM. But, it is still quite limited thinking; perhaps not a 2 year old, but more like a spoiled 13-year old from one of the more prestigious Prep Schools. Plans must change and we must be open to it. So, for the PP to destroy sources of potentially useful information to the PP, is still insane.
(Editorial Aside: And, I must confess, I am totally bewildered that we while we shouldn’t and wouldn’t let an insane person drive a school bus, we would have one armed with nuclear weapons. Well, more than one.)
In various organizations and contexts, the specifics of Killing the Messenger vary as well as the degree to which it happens. “Killing the messenger” figuratively can be partial. For example, a company will likely fill its website with positive news about the company. They probably take a similar tack with employees. If they are required by law to tell you about a drug’s side-effects, they will do it while a beautiful woman in a white dress dances carelessly and weightlessly through a field of daisies and while somewhere magic elves are playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Who wouldn’t want those side effects?! And, yet, that same company might be quite scrupulous about the accuracy of some of the data it depends on for its operational efficiency. So, it can be a mixed bag. At least, it can be a mixed bag for a normal organization or a normal person.
At one extreme, we might have some sort of highly enlightened guru who would immediately take in each new moment without judgement. Most people may initially have a negative reaction to bad news. They may not believe the messenger. They might say, “What? What did you say? No! You must be joking!”
In some cases, even a normal person might lash out at a messenger. I can see that if a member of the Armed Services came to your door to tell you that your spouse had been killed, you might scream at the messenger. But, if you’re more than a very small child, you realize it wasn’t their fault.
But no sane adult would block out potentially crucial information that should inform their critical decisions. A sane adult would seek out additional sources of information; cross-check them against each other; surround himself with smart, competent people honest enough to tell the truth, even when it “hurts.” Without the truth to work with, a PP is just a Powerless Puppet to their own Id — or, likely, someone else’s.
Perhaps you have been the recipient of some variant of “Kill the Messenger”? Or observer?
I will post another Pattern Language Overview that includes the newer Patterns and Anti-Patterns – with clickable links. After that, I plan to move in a quite different direction.