The Courageous Messenger

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 54, April 2008, pp. 8-9

Reviewed by Brian Martin

Karen is about to see the boss about a stuff-up at work. She worries, "Will I be blamed? Should I just keep quiet and let the problem get worse?" How can Karen decide the best way to proceed?

When the news is bad, it takes courage to be a messenger. There's a risk involved in telling the boss about a problem, or reporting it to outside agencies. Are there ways to convey the message more carefully, sensitively and persuasively? How can Karen learn the skills to be an effective messenger?

A lot of us would like to know the answer, because it might mean a lot less grief for whistleblowers. Persuasive communication won't always be enough: in some situations, Karen will become a target no matter how skilled she is. But some traumas and disasters might be avoided if whistleblowers knew how to convey their message more skilfully.

To learn the skills, it's worthwhile consulting the book The Courageous Messenger, whose subtitle is How to Successfully Speak Up at Work. Its three authors are organisational consultants. The book is a step-by-step guide to talking to the boss with a message that may be unwelcome.

They start with the elements needed to make a decision. They tell how to figure out your true message and what motivates you, assess the risk involved and understand possible reservations - and then make a decision.

Each one of these elements has components. For example, the authors give a useful set of steps to assess the risk involved. The first step is to identify possible repercussions. Next is to spell out the evidence for these repercussions. Is it direct experience (previous reprisals experienced or what you've personally seen happen to others), or what someone told you, or just things you're imagining might happen? Were these reprisals from the same person you're planning to speak to, or someone else? The next step is to note when these events occurred. If they're recent, the risk is higher. Next, you check how similar your situation is to the previous ones. Is the workplace situation much the same? Then the risk is higher. Finally, you put together all these assessments to see whether the repercussions are likely this time.

Making a decision about becoming a messenger is just the first step. Next is conveying the message, namely talking to the boss. This has a similar number of elements, including preparing for the meeting, opening the conversation, presenting your views and explaining your reasons, talking with the receiver (the boss), finishing the conversation and following through afterwards. That's a lot of attention to a simple conversation! Except that a conversation is rarely simple: your choice of words, your tone of voice, your response to objections and much else can make an enormous difference to the outcome, sometimes the difference between reaching agreement and things becoming much worse.

The authors encourage readers to consider becoming more skilled at being courageous messengers. Improvement comes from regularly conveying delicate and challenging messages and learning the lessons of this experience by reflecting on what worked and what didn't. The authors' goal is organisations in which courageous messengers are unnecessary because speaking up is routine.

Amazingly for a book on this topic, there is not a single mention of whistleblowing. There are many illustrative stories, hypothetical but realistic. One is of an employee not doing her share of the work. Another describes a boss who doesn't like to confront conflict and therefore unfairly moves a worker to a different project. Even in the chapters dealing with "tough cases," in which speaking up is more challenging, the difficulties are about the boss's personality, the relationship between the messenger and the boss, or the sensitivity of the topic. There's no mention of corruption.

Although the neglect of whisteblowing is a major omission, The Courageous Messenger is worthwhile because of its systematic, thoughtful approach to communicating potentially unwelcome messages. If more workers could develop the skills involved, workplaces would operate more smoothly and perhaps a few more workers could avoid serious reprisals for speaking out.

Kathleen D. Ryan, Daniel K. Oestreich and George A. Orr III, The Courageous Messenger: How to Successfully Speak Up at Work (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

Brian Martin is Vice President of Whistleblowers Australia and editor of The Whistle.

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