Don't Hide Bad News -- Tactic #8

Originally published 1/3/11

Some things get better with age, but bad news is never one of them. Generally, bad news ferments and gets progressively smellier as time passes. Best to get rid of it as soon as possible.

But throwing the bad news out on the table at the wrong time or in the wrong way will likely lead to more problems rather than fewer. How should you handle the revelation? Here are a few tips to make it a bit easier to swallow.

  1. Err on the side of mentioning potential problems before they are even real problems. If you're worried that the date might slip on that project -- say you're worried now, rather than when everybody already know it. If you wait, people think your either out of the loop or purposely hiding something.
  2. Always think through the answer to one question before you mention bad (or potential bad) news -- "What are you going to do about it?". The answer to this question should be provided by you without request if the problem is big. Remember the often quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing, but expecting something different to happen.
  3. Package your bad news in a "bad news sandwich". Do this by taking the two best pieces of news you have, and placing them before and after your bad news. Sure, it won't nullify the bad, but at least it leaves the impression that everything isn't going down the tubes at once.
  4. Don't make people drag bad news out of you -- volunteer it up front. Senior people will quickly draw the conclusion that you can't be trusted if you repeatedly make them dig for problems. Show that you are perceptive enough to recognize what's important.
  5. Don't pile on. Don't reveal your bad news as just one more problem in a seemingly endless series of problems (yours or others). You don't want your bit of bad news to be the thing that "breaks the camel's back". That will almost certainly have deep and unpredictable repercussions.

The bottom line is bad news is just...bad. There's a limited amount you can do to package it prettily or deflect the damage it causes. Perhaps the best thing you can do to manage the effects, is to limit the risks you take so that a limited amount of bad news comes your way.

One tactic for managing bad news that works extremely well is scapegoating, but that's an advanced tactic, and beyond the bounds of what neutrals will normally engage in. By using scapegoating, you don't reduce the impact of bad news, you simply deflect it onto someone else. Good scapegoaters will set it up that way, always keeping a buffer between themselves and their risks. This tactic will be described in more detail in a future post.