Are you a ‘no bad news’ leader?
In the course of my work I get to listen to lots of news – the good, the bad and the ugly. I have attended work weddings, christenings and housewarmings. I have celebrated birthdays, promotions, transfers and other achievements. I have also been on the receiving end of some bad news too – accidents, interpersonal conflicts, complaints, concerns, hurts and disappointments.
I noticed, however, that whenever I had to report bad news, it wasn’t always taken well by other leaders, whether they were on my level or more senior leaders. Here is what I observed as negative responses.
- Defensive and jumping to conclusions
The first negative response I’ve noticed leaders have in the face of bad news is to be defensive. When they are defensive, they take offense to the bad news and feel they need to defend their position or the situation. What being defensive does is reduce the leader’s ability to listen and analyze the situation objectively and rationally. When a person is defensive, all they can see is their side of things. When a person jumps to conclusions, he or she fails to listen to the entire situation before taking action. That is a dangerous mindset for leadership because when you take ill-advised action, it is difficult to undo what you may have done in error and haste.
Another negative response I’ve seen to bad news is anger. It is really a spill-over from defensiveness in my view. Again, anger doesn’t allow the leader to be objective or clear about what the issue really is. Anger causes one to lash out, oftentimes on the messenger and not focusing clearly on what needs to be resolved.
- Blaming and shaming
Blaming and shaming are two other negative responses to bad news that some leaders take. Once again, the leader who does this deflects attention from the matter at hand and prefers to look to the person at fault, or the person they can humiliate. I find these tactics make the leader feel as if no one would look in their direction in the event the mistake or problem is their responsibility.
Woe to you, oh bearer of bad news, if your leader is vengeful, or as we say in modern times, petty. What does that look like? That leader will take steps by any means necessary to punish you for bringing that bad news, even if it has nothing to do with you or you are just bringing something to their attention. What may make this worse is this type of leader has a hard time letting things go, and so your period of punishment and retaliation becomes a life sentence.
Positive responses to bad news
Bad news is nothing that a leader should fear or resent. In fact, it is something that should be welcomed because it is an indicator of something that needs your attention and should be rectified. Sometimes it might not even be an issue and can be handled quickly and appropriately.
How should a mature leader respond to bad news? I created the acronym LAF, pun definitely intended.
Listen first and listen without judgement. That means if you feel defensiveness or any other negative emotion rising, make a mental of it to process later, but while in the moment, let that emotion go and take the information for what it is. Get the facts. That will help to diffuse the emotional state of the person bringing the bad news as well. We all get emotionally attached to something we care about and that is the basis of why we should listen. People complain because they care. If they didn’t want it fixed and wanted you to fail, they would allow you to continue down your path of destruction. Take it for what it is. Listen and keep it moving.
Take the facts that you have received and assess them. Get all sides and perspectives needed. Allow others to offer input and solutions as well. Demonstrate this process to your team as well so they can learn to do this also. Perhaps the next time, they will just bring you a report of what the bad news WAS and what they did to solve the problem.
Finally, it makes no sense to get information and come up with solutions that you never implement. One of the marks of a great leader is taking action and getting results. When leaders fail to take action or take too long to deal with issues, it creates a loss of trust and sense of frustration in the team.
As leaders we have to hear all sorts of news. While it is equally as important to celebrate good news, it is our responsibility when we get bad news to take it, process it, analyze it, and deal with it. What is most important is that we teach our teams to do the same.
- Simmone L. Bowe, MSc, SPHRi, is a seasoned human resource and organization development consultant & trainer, speaker, author, mentor and activist who focuses on helping business owners, leaders and professionals diagnose their people and performance problems and implement strategic solutions. For comments, queries and bookings, email firstname.lastname@example.org.