The One Thing That a Healthy Company Culture Encourages, But We’re Scared Of

Bad news.

No matter how successful you or your company are, there are going to be times when things get hard, things don’t go your way and bad news arrives at your door (or Zoom screen) and you, as a leader, need to help deal with it.

We’ll talk about how to respond to bad news shortly, but let’s take a step back first.

What if your team is scared of sharing bad news with you? What happens then? At best, they’ll still share it but go through a range of emotions during the process, including a large dose of stress and anxiety. At worst, they won’t share it at all and things get worse as a result.

None of us enjoy sharing bad news. It could be that a crucial team member has decided to leave. Or that your biggest client has given notice to leave your agency. Or that you accidentally sent the wrong email to your database of 100,000 customers.

Whatever it is, a healthy company culture is one where a team isn’t afraid to share these kinds of things. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, they’re happy to share because they have the psychological safety to do so.

The root cause of not sharing bad news

When, inevitably, someone goes wrong in your team and a team member feels like they can’t share this with you (or the wider team), then it’s probably because of a few reasons, including:

  • Fear – they’re literally afraid to share the news because of the consequences of doing so, which could be a range of things.
  • Blame culture – you have a blame culture in your team and they don’t want to be the one that gets the blame for the bad news.
  • Lack of psychological safety – they feel that they may be punished or humiliated for speaking up.

Side note: if you’re unfamiliar with the term psychological safety, here is a good starting point.

All of these things come down to the culture of your team and the way that you work together. More importantly for you as an individual, how you work as a leader and your own behaviours matter a lot to the culture of your team. 

So, the question becomes, what behaviours should you strive for when your team brings you bad news and are looking to you for a response and support?

How to react to bad news

I used the word “strive” above deliberately because no one is perfect and sometimes, we may not react in the best way possible. I don’t want to set an unrealistic expectation here because we’re all human.

If you can have a strong awareness of this area and prepare for these situations, then get it right more often than you get it wrong, you’ll still be in a better position than the majority of managers out there.

Welcome bad news and say thank you

The simple act of including the words “thank you” in your first response will immediately relax the person delivering the news and remove any sense of fear or anxiety that they had. 

Not only this, but it sets exactly the tone that you want to – that you welcome bad news and want to hear it from your team. Your team will remember this in the future and it will massively reduce the likelihood of your team being fearful of bringing bad news to you.

Focus on the problem – do you understand it fully?

Whilst bad news can evoke understandable emotional responses, you need to try and focus on practicalities as quickly as possible. One way to do this is to zero in on the problem itself and seek to understand it.

Quite often, when problems are presented to you, lots of detail isn’t included immediately. So before reacting or taking any kind of action, ask questions and probe into the problem. You may find the answers you need or you may well find that your team needs to do more investigation into the problem.

The latter is very important because if you have less experienced team members, they may not have sought more information before making you aware of the problem. This means that you shouldn’t assume that they have already given you all the facts and context that you need to help them.

What is the range of outcomes at this point?

At this point, even if you need more information before taking action, it’s worth outlining the range of possible outcomes with your team so that you can understand where this bad news may lead.

It’s possible that this news, to them at least, feels like the worst news in the world and they’ll be expecting the absolute worst outcome as a result. This is where you can give some perspective and help them see that all may not be lost.

On one hand, assume the worst and talk about what the worst consequences may be (within reason – you don’t want to scare the hell out of them at this point!). Then on the other hand, talk about what the best outcome would be at this point. You’ll probably also want to talk about an outcome that is somewhere in the middle.

The benefit of doing this, especially with the middle and best outcomes, is that they can lay the foundation for what actions you can take to move towards those outcomes. 

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