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Don’t shoot the messenger: How to deliver bad news without being hated

Behavioral science research shows that we’re programmed to dislike the person who brings us bad news. So, what’s a messenger to do?

Don’t shoot the messenger: How to deliver bad news without being hated
[Photo: erica steeves/Unsplash]

Every one of us has to deliver bad news sometimes, and we all know how to do it occasionally when we’ve built up enough political capital. But what if you have to do it all the time?

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As part of their responsibilities, some people are destined to bring bad news to management with regularity. In my role as a corporate executive over the last 20 years, I’ve observed firsthand how ill-prepared most are to do this without getting sidelined or punished. Case in point: days after joining an executive team as the new compliance officer, my boss, the president of a $90B company, asked me if we could get rid of our internal auditor—”that guy who sits in my team meetings just taking up space.”

Some leaders are ineffective communicators, may lack political power, and many are professionally trained to seek problems, a mindset that puts them at odds with leaders who want to grow and focus on the positive. These factors alone make the job challenging. New behavioral science research suggests that it’s even worse than we thought.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra possessed the gift of prophecy, accompanied by a curse that her predictions would never be believed—including the destruction of Troy. Bad news messengers should empathize with Cassandra’s fate.

Based on a recent study, we know that such messengers are not only deemed unlikable and less competent, but that some malevolence is ascribed to them. Due to our overwhelming human need to make meaning of all events, especially bad ones (which iimpact us five times more than good ones), we unfairly confer ill intent upon the person delivering it. Further, recipients of bad news may believe that the messenger actively wanted the negative event to happen. The belief that messengers have chosen a norm-violating role that often conveys misery adds to this sense of blame. After all, they chose their fate.

To make matters worse, we also don’t warm to advice from people we don’t like. In a corporate context, this means the person cloaked in bad news may be rejected as an unhelpful resource—even if this person is, paradoxically, the subject matter expert specifically hired to serve in that role. I was reminded of this dynamic last week while coaching a Fortune 500 head of M&A. In a peer interview, the head of sales told me “I think he’s trying to kill the deal,” when my client was zealously executing the due diligence they were hired to do.

Messenger survival lessons

To survive and thrive in their roles, bad news messengers need to be acutely aware of how they are exercising their governance power, and plan ahead for delivering their “bad news” role.

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  • Provide advance warning to psychologically prepare your audience, such as, “I’ve got some bad news.” This helps reduce potential shock and the negativity recipients may feel when they hear the information. Calibrate expectations by setting context for the bad news. How long will it last? What is the estimated cost? What needs to change?
  • Rehearse your delivery. Doing so will help you project the right balance of confidence, humility, and gravitas. Practicing your talking points and body language has been proven to both enhance your credibility and to reduce the considerable emotional distress that can accompany your role.
  • Be fully present with key stakeholders. When delivering bad news, face-to-face is best, followed by videoconference, then telephone, to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and escalations. Written delivery is least preferred, given its lack of instant opportunity to clarify and loss of socioemotional cues such as tone of voice. Shortly after communicating, check in with key stakeholders and honestly evaluate your influence and status in the system. Some relationships may need shoring up after a crisis event. If you had a hand in causing the bad news, apologize.
  • Convey benevolent intent. Be aware of your audience’s bias to view you as harboring malevolent motives. Counteract this by expressing empathy. Relate the news back to the achievement of corporate goals, and communicate the path forward. Demonstrate how the problem has been fixed, or efforts underway to prevent recurrence. If you can show people how the change helped the organization, this emphasizes your good intent as a trusted advisor.
  • Explain—avoid justifying. It’s critical to give an adequate accounting of the relevant facts that allows your audience to understand what occurred. Done well, your audience will perceive you as sincere, trustworthy, and find your explanation is sufficiently detailed and reasonable. This lessens the blame ascribed to you by your audience and increases the perception of fairness and legitimacy of the bad news.

When bad news is your friend

A final word of caution to messengers: avoid the temptation to reframe bad news as a net positive. Overly reconceptualizing bad news as positive can undermine the sense of urgency required to respond to crisis and lead change.

We know we need to move beyond our base instinct to blame the messenger. Organizations need to cultivate Cassandras, so they receive all information that materially impacts their business and can respond effectively. I’ve witnessed too many ousters of well-intentioned leaders who were ineffectual at escalating issues that ultimately caused scandal and considerable cost to the business.

With adequate self-awareness, preparation, and trusting stakeholder relationships, these tragedies can be avoided. Through understanding their role in the power system and adopting bad news delivery strategies, frequent bad news messengers can conquer the Cassandra Bias and help ensure that organizations trust and heed their warnings.


Amii Barnard-Bahn is an executive consultant to the C-Suite and leaders at global companies like Boehringer Ingelheim, Adobe, Chegg, Bank of the West, and The Gap. Recognized by Forbes as one of the top coaches for legal and compliance executives, she guest lectures at Stanford and UC Berkeley and is a Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Coaching. You can receive her free Promotability Index self-assessment.

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