Good change at work

Tell it to me straight

If you’ve ever been given bad news, you’ll know that the best way to hear it is straight.

Facts, stated clearly and compassionately, allow you to process and act on the news, however unwelcome.

Last week I got some bad news. I was partly expecting the bad news. What I didn’t expect was that it would be delivered to me wrapped up in some truthless explanations. The intention may have been to soften the blow, or to avoid a difficult conversation, but in reality it added insult to injury. I was more bothered by the lack of honesty and courage in the way the news was delivered than I was by the news itself.

Most experts will tell you that it’s best to deliver bad news directly and simply, without hedging, falsehood or false hope. But of course – as I discovered recently – it doesn’t always work this way. It’s human nature – and perhaps more particularly New-Zealand-culture-nature – to gild the lily, soften the blow, hide the worst, to downplay the situation, or dress it up in euphamisms.

For me last week, the impact was annoying but brief and unimportant. But it did get me thinking. Was this just one person doing a bad job or having a bad day, or were there wider organisatoinal issues at play here?

And how much does it matter for organisations to be honest and courageous – particularly when it comes to delivering bad news?

Honesty and courage are not just nice values – they’re crucial for good business performance, particularly when it comes to fronting up to bad news.

Executive teams and boards need to hear – straight up and without gilding – the real truth of how their organisation is tracking. Without this clarity, they can’t do their job properly and – in the case of directors – can be personally liable for failures they should have foreseen and forestalled.

Similarly, employees need to hear – neutrally, unambiguously and with a clear evidence base – how they’re performing. Without this, they have to guess whether they’re doing well or badly, they can’t properly address their shortcomings, and performance management can be brutal, drawn out, and painful on both sides.

Organisations need to look at their values and culture and ask whether they’re supporting the early and clear delivery of bad news. Does your organisation expect and reward honesty, or do you shoot the messenger? Do your leaders model courageous and compassionate delivery of bad news? Don’t make integrity a value you list out and put on the wall. Make it something you act on, practice, reward and test every day of your business life – and be aware that it will be more tested when things are tough, and on the bad days, than it will be when the going is good.

Bad news is a part of business life. Whether it’s bad performance, failure to deliver on time, a third party stuff-up, reduced funding or a lost contract: bad stuff happens.

And people from the most junior staff member, to the customer, to the Chair of the Board need to hear the bad news early, and they need to hear it straight.


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