…do we kill the messenger?

We’ve all heard – and probably used – the idiom no news is good news, meaning that if we haven’t been told something bad has happened, then nothing bad has happened… and that’s good news. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never worked in an organization where that was true.

No, leaders who actually believe that if they haven’t heard any bad news then nothing bad has happened are a) wrong, b) just kidding themselves, and c) setting themselves up for spectacular failure. It’s much more likely that they’re not hearing bad news because people are afraid to tell them bad news.

If we trust our teams to do their jobs, and we do our best to help them be successful, then why do they withhold bad news from us? Do they think we won’t find out? Do they think they can fix it before we do find out? Do they hope some other messenger will be the bearer of bad news… and possibly get shot in the process?

Could it be that our usual reaction when things go wrong is something akin to road rage in the office?

A recent unpleasant experience with a local car dealership highlighted that using no news is good news as a business practice is a good way to destroy your service quality reputation. My frustration at my car being held hostage by the service department was fueled not by the department itself but by the rep that promised regular updates and repeatedly failed to provide them. When pressed to explain his lack of communication, he sheepishly replied, “I hate to give bad news to customers.”

My guess is that he’s not much better at giving his boss bad news.

OK, so we’re not road-ragers at work. Still, do we even know if our team is hesitant to bring us in the loop when something goes wrong? A good clue is if there is one person – a trusted agent of sorts – who keeps us informed about how things are running. We tend to appreciate the trusted agent’s insights and rarely get upset with them when they share bad news. Everyone else knows that and feeds us information about trouble in paradise through our informant… even though they probably feel like we’re playing favorites.

We all know that the best time to fix a small problem is before it becomes a big problem. But have we ever asked, “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” It’s probably not because they just discovered it. More likely, they were working up the nerve to tell us because of our usual reaction to bad news.

If we discover it before they tell us, do we behave as if we caught them in the act? Or tacitly accuse them of deliberately withholding the bad news and then mask our micromanagement behind trust but verify?

And how do we feel when we come out of a meeting where our boss confronts us about a situation big and bad enough that we should have known about? Worse yet when it happens in front of everyone and makes us feel stupid. Do we storm down the hall like a headhunter (and no, not the executive recruiter type)?

I’ve certainly been guilty of one or two – or more – of those negative reactions to bad news over the years. It took the intervention of a mentor to change my behavior, and countless unwitting employees can be thankful for him and glad they didn’t work for the old me.

If any of those situations ring true, here are a few hacks that helped me become a better leader… and easier to work for:

  • First and foremost, be a grown-up about hearing bad news. Short of a life-threatening situation, mature grown-ups (and good leaders) don’t lose control of their emotions and raise their voice. Grown-ups don’t intentionally make others feel stupid or incompetent. That’s actually a life hack, not just a leadership skill.
  • Don’t react to bad news; respond instead. Give it the old ten-count before you open your mouth and listen to what the bad news bearer has to say with an intent to better understand the situation. I had a boss that liked to say, “Now’s not a good time to overreact.”
  • When the situation is remedied, make it a lessons learned Include a discussion about ways to avoid a similar situation in the future. Leaders do that with every mistake that’s made – theirs or someone else’s.
  • Forgive and reassure. Remember that the offender already feels bad about the situation and give them an opportunity to both show and tell you how they have addressed it. Make sure they don’t feel like you’re always checking up on them. Trusting leaders don’t keep score.
  • Never go into a meeting unprepared. Make it a habit a habit to ask the team, “Is there anything I might get surprised by?

Remember, the main goal is to restore lost trust and let everyone put their behinds in the past.

Is that already the way you handle finding out about bad news? If not, why not?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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