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How to Express and Accept Bad News at the Workplace

Nobody likes bad news, and nobody wants to convey bad news to others. Yet, we all have to deal with bad news every day. If you observe any news closely over a period of some days you will notice that 90% of the news items are mainly bad news in some form or the other. Similarly, there will be plenty of issues in the workplace that can be called bad news. As a resilient person, one of the most important strengths you must cultivate is the ability to handle and manage bad news that affects you without going berserk.

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How you handle bad events in your life determines if they will strengthen you or destroy you. In most cases, the bad news is often handled in a bad way. One of the biggest reasons why employees don’t tell bad news to their managers is the fear of getting their heads chewed off. Jeff Rich, the CEO of ACS says, ‘I think the day that your people stop bringing their problems to you is the day you stop leading. They’ve either concluded that you don’t care about their problems or that you cannot help them. And leaders have to be in a position to help.’ But in many organizations, a typical discussion can be as follows.

Sales Trainee: ‘Sir, we lost that Abacus account to our competitor.

‘ Sales Manager: ‘What the hell happened? You always come to me with problems, not solutions. It was your @#$% job to look after that important client. Anyway, you are fired!!’

Today uncooperative statements like, ‘Don’t come to me with bad news or problems, come to me with solutions’ are fast becoming fashion statements in the business world. It’s becoming a crime to ask your manager or seniors for help when you are stuck with a problem or bad news. In many cases, such statements are also very convenient to avoid getting involved in realities and simply pass the buck. A statement like the one above can be highly counterproductive and demoralizing. Secondly, it does not create an environment of collaboration and problem-solving. Instead, it builds an environment that legalizes a shoot the messenger approach.
In many organizations, the bad news is suppressed at all costs. For many executives suppressing unpleasant news is a convenient method for career advancement and growth. In such organizations if you tell the truth your budgets may be cut, you may be sidelined, you may get poor performance appraisals or you may lose your job. So, you start lying and downplaying burning issues and soon it becomes the norm. Often bad news discovered at lower levels does not reach the senior management at all, or may even get whitewashed as good news. A shoot the messenger approach is often followed, and many managers believe if they keep punishing the bearer of bad news, bad things will automatically stop happening.

Gradually, employees and managers will start telling only the things that top managers like to hear and suppress things they don’t like to hear, until one day the earth caves in beneath their feet. The mega real estate busts, the subprime crisis, recessions, corporate collapses, etc., were all due to companies suppressing bad news and ignoring good advice. But resilient people must know how to handle and accept bad news. In fact, one of the keys to your resiliency is the willingness to seek and overcome bad news. If you avoid bad news you can never become resilient.
Telling bad news in the workplace about business and work-related issues is not the same as telling bad news to a weak heart patient. Have you ever seen or heard of any business manager die of shock, or have a heart attack listening to bad news in some project? Highly unlikely. Everyone knows things get screwed up, projects fail, stock markets crash, people make mistakes, and there are numerous reasons for failure. Hundreds of complex factors are involved. You cannot blame it on a single person in many cases. You should learn to tackle the issue, not the person. In some cases, bad things do happen due to the acts of a single person, but even that can be investigated and corrected in a professional manner. So, cultivate the habit of telling and receiving bad news in a professional manner without fear even if it means some personal sacrifices. Gradually, you will realize its significance and importance in making you a truly resilient professional.

Tips for practicing this technique

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes even the best employees goof up or something goes wrong with the project, business, etc. Bad news told upfront is actually good news as you may get some time to prevent it from becoming worse. Hiding bad and unpleasant news from concerned people is a big stress creator, which can definitely lead to more problems later. But, make sure it is bad news first. Get the facts and double verify them before passing it on to others. As a resilient person, you should not run away from bad news.

Conveying bad and unpleasant news to someone is not fun. Some people hate bad news and other people’s opinions and suggestions. Some believe every bad news is always the messenger’s fault. But these emotions should not be a reason for you to keep quiet on important issues or bad news. For example, if your project is going bad someone has to speak up before it’s too late. And that someone should be you.
Often when a project is in trouble no one wants to go to senior management and admit it. That is because it might start a witch hunt, investigation, blame, and retaliation. So, team members try to bury the bad news or may even quit the project rather than face an ugly situation. But if you are a true leader you should not be afraid of facing the truth. So never delay informing the appropriate person(s) even if it means getting some shoot the messenger remarks.

Think about a solution if you can. But also remember every problem cannot have an instant solution or have several fascinating alternatives just because the customer or boss is shouting or creating a loud ruckus.

Be precise and don’t use any business jargon to confuse things. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time-a a tremendous whack’.

You don’t have to go around with a drum and a trumpet to state bad news. Just because there is some bad news it does not mean you go and inform the CEO directly or send an email to all and sundry. Know who exactly to tell the bad news or whether it is worth telling everyone.

Quotes by famous people about this technique

It is always the best policy to speak the truth unless of course, you are an exceptionally good liar”.
Jerome K Jerome

Be frank and explicit. That is the right line to take when you wish to conceal your own mind and to confuse the minds of others.
Benjamin Disraeli

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.
Bill Cosby

We are all failures – at least the best of us are.
J M Barrie

You must study, to be frank with the world: frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted that you mean to do right.
Robert E Lee

Frankness is a jewel; only the young can afford it.
Mark Twain


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