Don't shoot this messenger, but it turns out there is a legitimate downside to being the person who delivers unpleasant news.

According to a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, generally, we really do tend to take a "dim view" of those who bear bad news, even if they are innocent messengers.

With a series of 11 experiments, a team of researchers at Harvard University worked to explore, "how we view others who are simply a conduit for bad news, and who clearly have no control over the content of the message they're sharing." The researchers examined how people respond when they imagine or even participate in a situation that involves receiving good or bad news.

For example, the first study demonstrated that the bearers of bad news are indeed not looked at favorably. When study participants had the chance to randomly win extra money from a number drawing, the research assistant handed the picked number to a colleague (the messenger) to read. The participants who learned they had not won the money--the participants who received bad news--later rated the messenger as less likeable in comparison to the ratings from those who received good news.

So when is this effect of disliking the messenger stronger? According to the team's research, when delivered bad news made less sense or was unexpected, giving a low likability rating of the messenger is especially probable.

Recall how you feel when you are waiting at the airport and it is announced that your flight is delayed by three hours. Who do you feel more angry at? The staff member who made the announcement, or the person actually responsible for the delay?

A handful of experiments by the team revealed that those who were unhappy with the messenger felt this way because they believed the messenger had "nefarious motives," even if logically this makes no sense. Regardless of why some feel the need to shoot the messenger, the reality is doing so affects how we act in regular situations.

If you want to get better at bearing bad news, prepare for the conversation accordingly. Remember to be direct and compassionate, and be mindful of when and where you will be delivering bad news.

And, if you want to improve how you receive bad news, remember not to take out your emotions on the messenger--find healthy ways to vent, and don't be afraid to ask for support.

Published on: May 30, 2019
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