dealing with bad news

Heard any bad news lately?

Every organization, even the best of them, has bad news and trouble brewing from time to time. Do you have an early warning system in place or might you be letting it build?

What can we learn from Brexit about leadership?

David Cameron, the now former PM of Britain following a devastating referendum loss on the Brexit situation, may be the poster-boy for not listening for bad news.

Advisors were aware of the deep unrest within Britain and leading up to the referendum, many were fearing the likely “leave” vote. What isn’t clear is how much of that fear and advice was making it to the Prime Minister and, if it was, how much of it was he actually hearing?

It has become well known that PM Cameron listened to only his closest advisors and even then, gave them little encouragement to give him the bad news.

A Cabinet Minister was once quoted, anonymously, as saying, “Nobody comes out of Dave’s office feeling better than when they went in.”

The Brexit vote and ongoing devastation of the British economy is, perhaps, the most massive recent example of a leader not heeding the bad news before the rest of us read about it in the newspapers.

Another might be the leaders in Enron Scandal leading up to the destruction of the company. As the late leadership scholar, Warren Bennis once said:

“Unlike top management at Enron, exemplary leaders reward dissent. They encourage it. They understand that, whatever momentary discomfort they experience as a result of being told they might be wrong, it is more than offset by the fact that the information will help them make better decisions.”

But what about you and your organization?

The consequences of you not hearing the warnings and the bad news might not make headlines around the world but I suspect it could devastate your own world, and your organization, just as brutally. How do we prevent that? How do we help you ensure you’re on top of things?

I’ve got a few suggestions:

Seek out feedback and bad news. Then seek to listen.

Ask open and honest questions in meetings and then listen more than you talk. Actively listen to each person. If you’re a frequent reader of The Coach’s Questions you’ll know one of our mantras comes from Stephen Covey who said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The goal we encourage our clients to seek is to listen to understand.

While you’re at it, listen for what isn’t being said.

Recognize some folks who are reporting to you, regardless of your level or title, may feel uncomfortable giving the boss bad news. Their unconscious view on the world may be that it’s better to not upset the boss then to give them bad news. Assure people of your desire to hear everything, explain how it is helpful for you to know the bad news well ahead of a problem. And then…

Control your emotions when receiving feedback, in other words don’t shoot the messenger. Be hyper-aware of your body language and facial expressions when you receive difficult feedback or bad news.

You might be inadvertently shooting the messenger by looking angry, cynical or mocking when you’re unconvinced of their view. That type of reaction spreads like wildfire and will all but ensure that person, and those around them, will no longer be inclined to give you honest feedback again.

Thank people for feedback.

When they do provide you with the difficult update, acknowledge the contribution and thank them for their willingness to help surface the issue and their willingness to engage you.

Spend time with the troops.

Leaders who spend time walking around and truly engaging with people who do not report directly to them open up communication and makes themselves real to the people who do the work. People are more apt to provide feedback to someone who appears emotionally and physically accessible.

Hire an executive coach.

Whether with us, or another firm, one of the jobs of an executive coach is to help you seek feedback and learn more about yourself –- your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your mental models and habitual emotional reactions.

A coach will help you understand how and why others react to you and you to them. This could even include interviewing folks around you to hear things you might not hear, or setting up a 360 evaluation for you.

One of our favourite questions to ask of staff is “What does X need to hear that you don’t want to be the one to tell him/her.” The results are often as astonishing as they are enlightening.

The Coach’s Questions:

What in the last six months has cropped up that you wish you had known sooner? What prevented you from knowing sooner? What might be brewing now that you don’t even know about — and what are you going to do differently in the next 7 days to find out?