Effectively Deliver Bad News
Sharing bad news and difficult information is part of everyday life. The key is to proactively share such information before the other party discovers it. In the end, people usually find out the truth. Therefore, honest communication is critical to establishing credibility and trust, which in turn affects teamwork, productivity, profitability, and long-term success. Honest communication is the way we gain and keep the trust of our customers, potential clients, co-workers, and staff, as well as our family and friends. You can tell how open and trustworthy a relationship is by how willing someone is to share things that are difficult but important to hear.
When it’s time to share bad news and difficult information, keep in mind three excuses to avoid and four techniques for effectively delivering the message.
Three Excuses to Avoid
1. “It was not my job.”
That rationale may seem okay, but it usually upsets the other person and makes you look like you are not a team player. After all, even if it was not your job, couldn’t you have taken action and done something to help? History is filled with successful people who seized the moment and took charge.
2. “No one told me.”
If this is the case, the question to ask is, “Why?” Did you create an environment in which people are afraid to tell you difficult information?
3. “Everyone agreed with me.”
Just because everyone agreed with you does not let you off the hook for the outcome. After all, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us. Also, psychologists who study group dynamics report that people who don’t think like the group tend to be alienated, left out, or even fired from their jobs. Just because everyone agrees with you does not mean you were right. In the 1400s, people thought the world was flat, but their collective thoughts didn’t make it so.
Four Techniques for Effectively Delivering the Message
1. Deliver it immediately.
Bad news about us is better coming from our own mouths than from someone else’s. If someone else discovers our bad news before we divulge it, it undermines their trust in us, and they may begin to wonder what else we’re hiding.
2. Take 100 percent responsibility for your actions.
Remember, no one makes us do anything. We choose our actions for a variety of reasons. Great leaders and great coaches take responsibility for their team’s actions as well as their own. When they take such responsibility, their fans usually receive any news favorably. Despite Ronald Reagan’s popularity as president, he started slipping in the polls during the Iran-Contra affair until he took full responsibility for what transpired. Once he took responsibility, his popularity rose again.
3. Get ahead of the curve on bad information.
If the future looks bleak or more bad information is possible, find out as much as you can and share it as quickly as possible before someone else discovers it. Years ago, tainted Tylenol killed people, yet the company survived the crisis in part because company officials quickly and openly shared what they knew with the public.
4. Take immediate and widespread action to correct the situation.
This will help prevent erosion of trust, because people will feel more secure when they hear and witness that someone is doing something about the situation. Unfortunately, organizations often take a reactive wait-and-see approach — only to have the situation worsen. One organization I worked with waited to take care of their financial woes until they were forced to proceed with massive layoffs. The employees who remained became skeptical and lost trust that the situation would be reversed, so they started to seek employment elsewhere. How we respond to mistakes defines us. Consider the Tylenol example again. The company immediately pulled all the potentially deadly products off store shelves. They did not wait to be forced to take action; they proactively told the public what their company was doing to correct the situation and prevent further accidents.
No one likes to share bad information, but doing so honestly is imperative to maintaining the bond of trust. Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and honest communication is the key to developing and building the relationships we desire.