Bad news and leadership – Part 1

Bad news is not the best thing in the world but as a leader but you do have to listen to it, deal with it, work with its implications, results and possibly take decisive action because of it. Over the next couple of blog articles I am going to look at aspects of how you can deal with different types of bad news as a leader. The first one of these is the type that can come from within your team or somewhere else in your organisation.

Picture the scene, and we have all been there: you are on the way to an important meeting or to do something else; your phone rings or someone approaches and you hear the words that mean that something potentially big is coming: “Hello, it is XXXX, have you got a couple of minutes?” Or “Are you aware of….”

The first thing to do in this scenario is get ready to listen. If someone is taking the (potentially brave) step of flagging something up to you, you owe it to them to listen and concentrate on what they are trying to tell you. This is one of those things that must be dealt with at the time it happens. You might have to shuffle your diary or change your plans to accommodate it, but you must find the time for it. If you don’t, then how valued do you think that person will feel? Even if you schedule a meeting later in the day with the person, the chances are the key message will be lost as the mood and motivation will have gone.

Part of getting ready for listening is getting the environment right. If the office is open-plan or the meeting happens on the shop floor, then the chances are that people won’t speak freely and the true problem won’t be identified. So, move somewhere with a bit of quiet and privacy and switch your phone to silent, or off, so you can focus on the person you are meeting with.

This may be a small issue that won’t take too much time or effort but also, it could be an “Enron” which could place the entire organisation in jeopardy but you won’t know until you get more information – lots more! So, before you start jumping to conclusions or planning solutions, get all the relevant information. Some personalities (in MBTI terms, ES’s and EN’s in particular) like to do their thinking “out loud” so won’t necessarily listen or gather all the data before they start speaking. This is a mistake in this scenario so give the person time and space to give you the whole story before coming to any conclusions. You may well find that you have to get information from other people or have to use some constructive questioning techniques to get to the root cause of what is going on.

The other key thing to find out is: what the person is hoping will happen as a result of the conversation. Obviously, some things are more possible/likely than others but you need to manage their expectations about the likely outcome at this early stage. If appropriate, you will also have to keep them updated as events unfold.

Finally, you need to promise some form of investigation or action to resolve the point(s) that have been raised to you. Sitting on it or ignoring it is not an option as it will lose both you and the organisation credibility. Taking action may harm you politically but if you are going to be an authentic leader, then you need to do something about it.

I know of a couple of organisations where a team flagged a particular circumstance that would have grave financial consequences to their leadership for 2 years before those circumstances actually happened. With a bit of analysis, planning and open communication, the organisations would have been in a far better shape to weather the financial storm that engulfed them. And the leadership of those organisations would be far more credible and supported in the future by those teams….

So, in summary:

  • Bad news can come from anywhere and you need to listen to all of it – particularly when it comes from within your organisation.
  • You may need to re-schedule or re-plan your day a result of spending time receiving it.
  • Listening is key before getting in to solutions/actions mode.
  • You then have to take action – ignoring it is not an option – even if it harms you politically.
  • Communications with key stakeholders, as ever, are key.