Proper Care and Feeding of People Who Cry Wolf

Remember the kids’ story, the boy who cried wolf? He did it two times, no wolf, so the townspeople ignored him the third time, gulp?

In August I posted Are You a Good Manager? How Can You Tell on this blog. I think I know one element of good manager: taking care of the people who cry wolf. In fairy tales, crying wolf is a bad thing. In management, dealing with employees in a company, it’s a good thing.

Crying wolf means sounding false alarms. Saying something isn’t working. The messaging is wrong, production is faulty, customers are getting the wrong idea, the parking lot is icy, or whatever. And I’ve learned, in some 30 years managing people, that you should treasure the employees who care enough to sound the alarms. And in business, not fairy tales, a false alarm isn’t such a bad thing because it wakes you up, makes you think, keeps you alert. It takes just an extra touch of reaction to check, find the alarm false, or not. And checking isn’t a bad thing. And people who sound alarms are sticking their necks out, risking the comfort of saying nothing, to suggest something’s wrong.

Consider this: what’s the harm of a false alarm in a business setting? How many false alarms are worth it if just one of them turns out to be real? False alarms are part of a good process in business.

So, do you want to be a good manager? When somebody in your business cries wolf, note it, make sure that person knows you’re glad they did, especially when there’s no wolf. Because you want them to cry wolf, again, the next time. And if you say nothing, they’re going to feel foolish, and not do it again.

And if you want to know you’re a bad manager, consider this: are there people in your organization not telling you when they think something is wrong? Why wouldn’t they tell you? What happened the last time they did?

(image credit: wikipedia. An illustration of a 1919 anthology, by Milo Winter)


  • Good Managers Want Bad News says:

    […] posted The Proper Care and Feeding of People Who Cry Wolf on Planning Startups Stories a while ago, in praise of the metaphorical boy who cried wolf in a […]

  • Charles Robinson says:

    There is a limit to this, though. I have one person in accounting who cries wolf a lot. Every potential issue is presented as a dire worst case scenario no matter how improbable or implausible it is. Eventually it just becomes self preservation to ignore it.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Charles: thanks for that. As I was writing this post, I was tempted to add an “on the other hand” clause. I’m glad you point out that there are limits. Tim.

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