The Value of Bad News

Business, Business Communications, Communications, Leadership

An interesting article caught my eye recently on the importance of listening. It specifically looks at senior leadership and the challenges of remaining connected to the full organization while creating an environment that fosters sharing and listening across levels. The article is titled Are You Really Listening? via Harvard Business Review (limited number of articles per month free or for subscribers) and is worth a read in full.

For years, CEOs and other senior leaders (corporate, agency, and nonprofit) have often struggled alone in managing the pressures they face. Despite being in charge of hundreds or even thousands of employees, it can be a very lonely role. The expectation exists to be confident and strong in their decision making, to always have a handle on what’s coming next. Studies have shown that many CEOs don’t feel that they can have someone internally with whom they can be truly open and honest in working through ideas or challenges they face.

Because of these pressures and challenges, it is easy to become disconnected from those with lines of sight to the day-to-day operations. It’s also common for information moving up the chain to be revised at each step to appear more positive. Managers and directors along the way don’t want to be the bearer of bad news either so senior leaders may be receiving filtered information that paints things in the manner that staff “believe” leadership wants.

“At the core of the challenge is a paradox in the life of senior leaders, particularly CEOs: They generally have access to more lines of communication than anybody else has, but the information that flows to them is suspect and compromised. Warning signals are tamped down. Key facts are omitted. Data sets are given a positive spin.”

Are You Really Listening? – Harvard Business Review

There are a number of great takeaways within the article and Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer provide quality insights so I won’t repeat those but one aspect that I’d like to expand on is the importance of accepting, and actually encouraging, staff to share bad news.

In my career, this has been one of the major challenges that most organizations face. It’s hard to share bad news, really hard. Every employee wants to perform well and succeed so sharing news like “the promotion isn’t working” or “customers don’t want our new solution” with your boss can be a scary proposition. The first time I ever made a mistake at work, which turned out to be a relatively easy to fix once I summoned the courage to raise it, I was absolutely sure I was going to be fired and finding a new line of work. Yet I’m still here 25 years later thanks to a great boss that probably saw the fear on my face and calmly talked through a couple options to get things back on track.

To empower staff to share information openly, consider the following:

Directly communicate the importance of unfiltered updates– The best way to convey your need for essential, open information is to state it early for all employees. The information coming in from all sources in the organization must work together to provide the organization with the flow of real-world feedback needed to succeed. As a manager or leader, you can’t do your best work without the support of employees in their roles. Be sure every employee knows that as well.

Walk the talk in supporting culture- It is easy to say “come to me with anything” but without a system in place and backing from the top of the organization that statement rings hollow. The first time any employee comes to you with a concern or bad news, how you react will set the tone for the future interaction with them and anyone else that knows of the issue. A disappointed look, frustration, or anger will carry more weight than any policy they’ve read. You begin building trust from day one and you continue to earn it over and over with each update, good or bad.

Create regular touchpoints to listen and clarify- Establishing a regular cadence of updates from all levels of the team allows senior leaders to have timely, open updates. Putting the pieces together from all sources of information throughout the organization is the responsibility of leadership. To do that, they need full access to information but that also requires focused listening.  A meeting can shift into something that just has to be done and then on to the next one, particularly for remarkably busy individuals. Don’t make that mistake and slip into turning a valuable commitment into a missed opportunity. To gain the strategic value from listening, you must be fully present to hear what is being said and take the opportunity to clarify and ask questions. Actively listening provides employees with the confidence that they are valued and trusted while senior staff get the insights they need to effectively set the right strategic direction for all.

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