How Do You Respond to Bad News?

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As a leader, you should be creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing bad news.  You don’t want them hiding problems, or worse yet, manipulating data to make it seem as though things are proceeding smoothly.   When people do surface issues and concerns, leaders face a moment of truth.  How should you respond?   You only need to shoot the messenger once to poison the organizational culture for years to come.  People have long memories.  They will remember if a prominent leader reacted poorly to the messenger who delivered bad news.   
What is the right way to respond to someone brings forward a key risk or problem with potentially damaging ramifications for the business?   

  • First, leaders need to express their gratitude and praise the courage that it took to raise the issue.  
  • Second, they need to point out the harm that hidden risks can pose to the organization, and encourage others to come forward in the future with similar concerns or problems.  
  • Third, leaders have to avoid the natural instinct to ask, “Why did this happen, and who is responsible?”  Certainly, there will be time to delve into the causes of this problem.  However, in the moment, leaders want to avoid finger-pointing and assigning blame.  Instead, they must focus on bringing people together to solve the problem.  They need to ask, “How can we resolve this problem?  What do we need to do moving forward?”  Naturally, answering these questions will require some investigation as to the cause of the problem.  However, the focus on problem solving rather than “investigation and interrogation” will mean a world of difference moving forward.  
  • Fourth, leaders must encourage the team to look systemically at the problem, rather than individualistically.  They can’t focus on the individual(s) involved, but instead must address the systemic issues that led to this failure.  It’s not about the one rotten apple usually… it’s about the damaged barrel that caused the apples to spoil.  
  • Finally, leaders must look inward.  How did their behavior, leadership style, goal-setting tactics, and means of rewarding employees lead to this problem?  Acknowledging your own role in the situation not only helps the organization improve and avoid making a similar mistake again, but it makes others more comfortable discussing the mistakes and errors that led to this failure.  


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