Are you shooting the messenger? Part One

Written by Martyn Gomersall - 6 min read

Are you shooting the messenger? Part One - Safetylogz

During my school years I never showed any interest in reading Shakespeare, the archaic language baffled me and it has only been in recent years, assisted by a brilliant BBC Comedy, that I have taken a little more notice of what the “Bard” had to say… However much you enjoyed or detested his works, we cannot deny that he certainly seemed to have a grasp on the frailties of the human condition.

When researching this blog I came across the Shakespeare play, Henry IV Part 2, and in particular Act I, scene 1 where he writes; (Northumberland) “Thou shakest thy head and hold'st it fear or sin to speak a truth. ... Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office, and his tongue sounds ever after as a sullen bell, remember'd tolling a departed friend."

Those eloquent, though a little difficult to understand words, was basically saying “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” because it will have unintended consequences. And he was not the first to uncover this pearl of wisdom, give or take two thousand years or so, a Greek Philosopher, Plutarch, highlighted the same human folly. In Life of Lucullus, Plutarch wrote:

"The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus' coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him"

Yes that’s correct, if you continue to punish the bringer of bad or disappointing news, you are doomed to only hear good, flattering or false news.

I once worked in a high pressure production focused coal mine where the pressure to produce 2000 ton per shift from a single section was first and foremost in the mind of our production manager, the morning production meetings consisted of a number of Mine Captains reporting on the previous day’s production and providing “explanations” on why things had not gone according to the set goals. One particular Mine Captain, who led one of the struggling sections would always begin his report with the words “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” and then go on to report the days’ production and the reasons why his team had not achieved their target.

His tactic was cunning, he knew that his unwanted news would bring a stream of expletives and insults, usually about his ability to mine coal, and other more personal abilities; but if he started with those tactical words, he was putting a defence into place, before he delivered the sub-standard production figures and he was usually spared the insults.

lucky he used to shoot the messengerr

In another instance, earlier in my career, I had a plant maintenance fitter named Freddy working for me and it seemed that every job I asked him to do, he would first explain all that could go wrong with the job before he even opened his toolbox. I, being a little youthful at the time, didn’t quite understand why he did this and usually dismissed him with some words which, in polite company, means go away and get the job done! Much later I discovered he had worked at another company where his foreman wasn’t a great receiver of bad news and he, the foreman, would fly into a rage when anything didn’t go as planned. Freddy also learnt to be strategic, softening the foreman to bad news by pointing out what could go wrong, and thereby hopefully lessen to expected wrath which would rain down on him when delivering bad news.

Delivering bad news has lliterally led to murder...

Some people are so afraid to bring bad news that they will simply look the other way when something goes wrong, hoping someone else will see it and report it and if you don’t think that is true, then ask yourself, why do governments create “Whistleblowers” legislation? In some instances people have been known to have been murdered for identifying serious issues in the workplace (Shanmughan Manjunath in a case involving the Indian Oil Corporation and Satyendra Dubey working in the NHAI)

Those two cases were not safety related but shows that fear of reporting undesirable news can carry with it a fear of great personal danger.

Now, what about the deliverer of bad news from a safety perspective? I have heard on numerous occasions workers saying that they don’t speak up about hazards on site because they are agency staff and they are certain that if they complain, they will have their agency contract terminated, how tragic is that? They would rather risk life or limb to make sure that they have a job to go to the next day; I really can’t blame them either! In these days of uncertainty, job security is certainly on a lot of people’s minds and enduring a dangerous situation may seem to be the lesser of two evils.

Some industries set up confidential reporting schemes in an attempt to increase the rate of reporting of hazards, and these are to be commended though in recent times I have noted an increase in issues of welfare rather than “life affecting” hazards or near miss occurrences and this is a bit of a travesty to the laudable aims of these types of programs.

The UK Railway Industry CIRAS program is one such Confidential Reporting Scheme which, I’m my opinion, seems to get itself bogged down in issues which, to my mind, seem like gripes more than issues. It has been a long time since I have seen any reports from them of any Near Misses and, surely, that should be a big part of the information safety professionals require.

Recently there was also a commercial battle going on within the UK Rail Industry when an organisation wanted to introduce an alternative Confidential Reporting platform, I was close to people driving the alternative scheme and I’m uncertain how that ended but needless to say, you would think the industry would appreciate any help it could get in increasing the flow of information which would otherwise have been remained hidden.

It is important to note that Confidential Reporting is not “Anonymous Reporting” which raises some questions, primarily: Why not, why not allow workers to report something as anonymous? This is a subject which I will be exploring in Part Two of this blog.

cinematic gunman