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The Cassandra Curse

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After the trojan horse was brought inside the gates of the ancient city of Troy, 30 of the best Greek warriors who had been hiding quietly inside the wooden horse for hours launched a surprise attack on the residents and decimated the city.

The question remains – why anyone didn’t warn the leaders the trojan horse was nothing more than a decoy or an ambush. Surely, they weren’t all compliant!

One person named Cassandra did raise the alarm, warning the city and its leader’s not to open the gate, but no one listened.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra (also known as Alexandra) was a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. There are claims Cassandra was offered a gift to see into the future by the God Apollo so he could win her heart. Initially Cassandra agreed with Apollo and took his gift, only to reneged on the deal later. This infuriated the God and as he couldn’t withdraw his gift. Apollo cursed her, so any prophecy she made would not be listened to no matter how hard she tried to convince them.

I am sure there have been people with your workplace who have seen the impending downfall of a new initiative, new employee or product launch and for some reason were totally ignored. These workplace prophets have fallen foul of Cassandra Curse or the inability to persuade others to head their warnings.

Over the years the world has seen many examples of where Cassandras Curse has had catastrophic consequences. On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. The reason as to why the shuttle exploded was because of a faulty O-ring which Roger Mark Boisjoly an American mechanical engineer, fluid dynamicist, and an aerodynamicist (lets just call him and expert) warned his superiors about in July 1985.

We can also see this today all around the world as policy makers try to grapple with the concept of climate change. Yet for over 20 years the Cassandra’s (Scientist who have spent a lifetime researching the earth’s climate) have been trying to convince the world that the climate is changing in a way we are not prepared for. Whether you believe in the science of climate change or not, the Cassandra curse has been in play for those scientists as until now, the message has fallen upon deaf ears.

Now hindsight is 20/20 vision, but what can you do to get your message across and bypass the Cassandra Curse?

Professor of European & International Politics at King’s College London, Christoph Meyer has spent many years studying how warnings are made, and which ones manage to break through the noise. Sure timing is everything but to give yourself ever chance of success Meyer and his associates identified that for a communicative act to qualify as a warning, the warning message needs to contain three core elements:

  1. A knowledge claim about future harm – providing evidence to the key decision makers about how this will affect the business, the brand and the impacts it would have.
  2. A judgement about the importance of this harm – providing decision makers with your personal judgement surrounding the importance of the issue.
  3. An assessment about what action could be taken to avoid or mitigate the risk – providing well thought out actions that could be taken to avoid or mitigate the problem.

Let’s explore a personal example of where I could have used Meyer’s three elements to achieve success.

In one of my previous roles I realised a new employee did not seem entirely happy in the position. I tried to advise management there was a risk to the business and we needed to do something about it. My intuition was right and not long after my initial conversation, we lost the employee to a competitor and scrambled to replace them.

Using the Meyers concepts, I should have done the following:

  1. A knowledge claim about future harm – highlight what the signs were and how I had come to my interpretation of the situation. Explain in detail that if this person was to leave, we would be under resourced and our clients would be unhappy with the change.
  2. A judgement about the importance of this harm – explain this is significantly important because of the current role this person had with our clients. Emphasise that in my personal judgement, if something didn’t happen to address this issue then the person would leave and not only damage the business’s brand but result in a costly venture to be replaced.
  3. An assessment about what action could be taken to avoid or mitigate the risk – provide decision makers with the options I considered like; having a genuine conversation about their engagement levels, looking to develop them further, or recruiting and training a new person to take their place. Pros and cons of each option would be provided.

Whilst these three core principles will help you in overcoming some of the resistance you may experience within the workplace, it doesn’t account for several factors. Position or authority, timing, ability to for the receiver to acknowledge and understand the issues, personal biases or a willingness to accept that things must change.

I would encourage you to explore how the three core elements can help you overcome Cassandra’s Curse and present your prophecies in a way that meets the need of key decision makers. It’s when we all allow the Trojan Horse to be wheeled in without any objections that we end up in a position like those at Troy and risk some form of disaster.

Scott Timmins CMgr GradCertPSM, CAHRI, AFIML

If you want to explore other examples of the Cassandra Curse check out the following: