Leadership

How to Bear (and Be the Bearer of) Bad News

By / Apr 21, 2019 (champja/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Whether you’re giving bad news or getting it, people around you are bound to be upset. In those cases, a little empathy and self-awareness might go a long way.

Association leaders receive a lot of input during the day—from direct reports, volunteers, members, and rank-and-file staff members, not to mention news stories and articles like the one you’re reading right now. And not all of that input is going to be positive. A fundraising campaign is falling short; a new product has gone off schedule; another pundit is telling you that however you’ve been doing things, you’ve been doing it wrong.

However rational we might consider ourselves in those situations, we have a natural habit of letting bad news get the better of us and deflecting the blame. “People are prone to derogating those who tell them things they don’t want to hear—we shoot the messenger,” a trio of Harvard researchers reported last week in Harvard Business Review.

We’re wired with a ‘sense-making’ mechanism that wants to put bad news into some kind of order.

But don’t blame them for that—it’s just science. In a number of test cases—a doctor delivering a cancer diagnosis, a gate agent announcing a flight delay—the researchers found that those who hear the bad news have a tendency to ascribe ill intentions to the messenger. Those who received the bad diagnosis, for instance, “were more likely to say that the doctor was hoping that they had cancer,” they write.

We behave this way, against all good sense, because we’re wired with a “sense-making” mechanism that wants to put bad news into some kind of order. And the easiest path to sense-making is to ascribe responsibility to the person who’s delivering the bad news.

And here’s the bad news about that: We don’t have especially good tools to counteract it. Warnings to people about our shoot-the-messenger tendencies—like this post—”are unlikely to be fruitful,” they write.

But let’s flip the situation here. As an executive, you’re not always the person who’s receiving the report of bad news. Sometimes, you’re the person who has to deliver it: the cut to a departmental budget, the divisive decision to go with a different vendor or meeting venue, the thumbs-down on an ambitious project that a senior VP was heavily invested in. We do have some control over how we communicate those things, the Harvard researchers write, because we can try to get ahead of others’ kill-the-messenger instinct and make clear that we’re looking out for the people we deliver bad news to.

“Recipients are less likely to dislike bad-news messengers when those messengers explicitly convey the benevolence of their motives—for example, by prefacing bad news with a statement such as: ‘I’m really hoping for the best for you,’” they write. Giving positive feedback before and after lowering the boom (a.k.a. the “sandwich method”) can help as well.

Those aren’t perfect solutions, of course. Anybody who’s weathered a disappointment at the office knows that being told “it’s nothing personal” only reduces the sting so much. But being better at delivering bad news in a compassionate and thoughtful way strikes me as a good practice for being the kind of leader who receives it well.

And that’s particularly true today, when our sense-making capabilities seem to be increasingly taken advantage of. We like the stories we make up in our head, and though you and I are of course too smart to be swayed by false and misleading news stories, those stories gain strength because they appeal to those same baser instincts. Cognitive scientist Julian Matthews recently explained to Neiman Lab that a fake story “can continue to shape people’s attitudes after it has been discredited because it produces a vivid emotional reaction and builds on our existing narratives.” (And because there’s an association for everything, a group of associations is working on that.)

Bad news, like fake news, triggers the worst of our sense-making instincts. And because a leader is at least partly in the communication business, it’s worth being mindful of how our messages get received and how we receive messages from others. “A key part of generating an explanation for an event is assignment of blame,” the Harvard researchers write. Maybe it’s hard to eradicate that instinct, but leaders can learn to be more open to understanding and addressing it.

Do you have a process for absorbing and communicating bad news in your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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