How to deliver bad news, it’s the opposite to how you think!
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” This is a question many of us have heard at some point in our lives. But is there a best approach when it comes to giving good and bad news? Research suggests that the news-giver can take a specific approach to ease the discomfort of the person receiving the news and to create positive change, which is crucial in the workplace.
This recent study makes the argument for bad news before good—with some exceptions.
Giving and receiving bad news
Most of us, when given the option, will prefer to receive bad news first, followed by good. Receiving bad news first allows us to get our anxiety and negative feelings out of the way, and finish on a high with the good news. None of us like the sour taste of bad news! Yet often the person giving the news will prefer the reverse approach. Why? Well, as much as we hate receiving bad news, we also hate giving bad news; many of us will try to avoid the uncomfortable situation of doing so. We will even employ tactics such as delaying to avoid delivering bad news.
Does it matter what comes first?
How you deliver and receive good and bad news in the workplace has consequences. An employer or manager will often give an employee bad news to encourage the employee to change their behaviour. For instance, a manager may deliver news about an employee’s poor productivity or other aspect of performance in the hope that the employee will lift their game.
Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that there is a more scientific approach a manager should take when delivering an employee bad news, and it’s not what you probably think.
The right approach to giving bad news
Many people giving bad news forget one of the most important things in the delivery – the emotions of the person receiving the news. It’s easy to think about ourselves first, but when giving bad news, we always need to think about the perspective of the other person.
Some of us, when delivering bad news, will also try and mask or soften the impact by delivering bad news followed by good news. Others will use a sandwich of news: good news followed by bad news and then good news again. We may feel that this masking approach eases the burden on the person receiving the news as they still get the high at the end. But is it an effective approach? Not according to the research. That approach may help the person delivering the news, but not the person on the receiving end, who will experience anxiety while waiting for the bad news. The message of the bad news will also likely be lost in the process.
The research recommends delivering the good then the bad news if you want to change the other person’s behaviour. The bad news should be useful to the person in order for this approach to be successful. If it is not useful, the approach may not have the desired effect.
Sometimes, if the bad news is severe, such as a manager firing an employee, the best approach is to deliver the news straight up. In this case, it’s important to accompany the bad news with helpful information so that the person can more easily accept it.
So what does this all mean for the workplace?
If you are a manager, you should ensure that when delivering bad news, you shift your focus from what you may be experiencing in giving the bad news, to what the other person will be going through. Remember, it’s tougher on them than on you!
For an employee, when you receive bad news, remember that you are being told something for a reason. Assess what you can do to improve, rather than focus on your natural response to the bad news. Sure, your feelings may be hurt and you will likely be upset that you are not performing as well as you may have thought, but this is your opportunity to come back and shine! Listen to what the person is telling you. They are not trying to make you feel inadequate; they are trying to help you be a better worker. Seize the opportunity and look at what you can do to improve.