Learn to listen for bad news

In many organizations, the sugar-coating process prevents top management from really knowing what’s going on

A friend who works at a megabank mentioned his management was quite astute and understood what went on throughout the massive organization. Except for one thing, I responded: the higher you go, the longer it’s been since you’ve heard the truth. 

If you think back to the early days of your career, it probably didn’t take you very long to figure out that reporting good news upward could be quite beneficial. Everybody loved you. Bad news, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so welcome. Even if it’s not your fault, we still like to shoot the messenger. 

I can remember a meeting with colleagues in an engineering group where we were trying to decide who should be the bearer of the bad news. Nobody wanted to volunteer and everyone had a good reason why it shouldn’t be him. We ended up drawing cards, and the high card would “win” the “opportunity,” so to speak. Guess who drew the king?

In any case, we have to do our duty and report what happens upward. Most people don’t lie, as that gets us into trouble very quickly. Even presidents and presidential candidates get caught. 

No, what most of us do is make the good news sound as good as possible, and we do the same with the bad news. We try to make it sound as good as we possibly can without lying. In large organizations, there can be many layers or levels of management. If these “enhancements” happen at each level, by the time you get to the top, assuming this news is important enough to go that high, the news bears almost no resemblance to what actually happened. 

Some managers are pretty savvy and will actually speak directly to the people at the scene in a crisis situation. Unfortunately, such managers seem to be few and far between. 

I once worked for a guy who was asked to manage a plant in a crisis and turn it around. He was starting on a Monday morning, and the plant staff were up in their offices ready to brief their new plant manager as soon as he arrived, but he wasn’t showing up.

About 10:30, someone called and asked for the director of operations and the engineering manager to report to the testing lab. They said they couldn’t go, as they were waiting for the new plant manager. The voice on the other end of the line said, “That’s me, and I want you down here right away!” 

He had been on the manufacturing floor since 7 a.m., speaking to the people who actually did the work instead of being briefed by his management team. They quickly found he wasn’t taking their input; rather he was telling them what to do based on the input he was getting from the bottom. The seemingly impossible obstacles started falling one by one. The plant was running smoothly for the first time ever in a matter of months. 

Nobody got fired, but the plant staff and their subordinates learned a new way of managing very quickly. It was called “get the information from the source yourself right away.” They weren’t spending a lot of time in their offices after that. 

My friend at the megabank mentioned he had a boss who would have lunch with his direct reports monthly. The boss would ask each of them for the very worst news they had. Everyone got to report just one item, and they would collectively vote for the worst item. The “winner” got dinner for two at a nice restaurant. These folks learned to stop embellishing bad news. Get it out there, naked and raw. 

Tom Raffio, CEO of Northeast Delta Dental, instituted a similar approach early in his tenure, but he took it one step further. He paid customers in cash for their complaints! You could call customer service and tell them your tale of woe. They’d ask a few questions, which would help them figure out how to fix the process and prevent recurrence; then they’d send you a check. 

Tom admitted it was expensive at first, but it was a great way to discover their problems quickly, especially the ones that affected customers, and fix them. As they fixed the problems, they got fewer and fewer complaints. It’s no wonder they have the lion’s share of their market. 

Learn to love and seek bad news. Used correctly, it can be incredibly beneficial. 

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.