The door to the manager’s office, which was usually open, was closed and
stayed closed for days on end. Whenever people saw the manager, usually chat-
ty and outgoing, he avoided eye contact, making a beeline from elevator to
office. When he was absent, it was for meetings that lasted a day or more.
Through it all, the manager was silent, but the rumor mill was deafening. The
company was being sold. No, it was being merged. The sale or merger would
result in the outsourcing of everything, starting with IT. Rumors piled on
rumors, until work came to an absolute standstill and people spoke of nothing
but the elimination of their jobs, their livelihoods, and their futures. Work as
they knew it was history.
Bad News Syndrome
Seem familiar? This scenario, which I have seen variations of for years, plays
and replays itself on a daily basis throughout the corporate landscape. In tough
economic times it is more common, but even in boom times we know it goes
on. One feature that exacerbates the situation is a paucity of information. Many
managers make the mistake of assuming that they can get around potential bad
news by remaining silent. The first rule of rumor-mongering is that gossip
abhors a vacuum. And in the age of transparency and on-demand communi-
cations 24/7, there is no such thing as no information. What people do not hear,
DELIVERING BAD NEWS
People have a right to know when things are going wrong.
Be straight up.
“Bad news is not like wine. It does not improve with age.”
—COLIN P OWELL
122 / HANDLE THE T OUGH S TUFF
they will make up. Why? Because the lack of real information creates a demand
for information of any kind. So often we feel it is better to assume the worse
than deal with the reality of the unknown, so we talk amongst ourselves, creat-
ing storylines that build on one another until we reach gridlock.
Often senior managers are responsible for greasing the wheels of the rumor
mill because they say one thing in the media, contradict it to their employees,
and then remain silent, avoiding comment to anyone. This situation leaves mid-
dle managers, who bear the brunt of employee frustrations, stuck between a
rock and hard place but responsible for getting the work done anyway, despite
the fact that their people are paralyzed with apprehension.
Managing the Bad News
So what can managers do in situations like this? They can learn to give bad
news, and by doing so create greater levels of trust and eventually get some
work done. Let’s explore some ways to do this.
Speak up. Bad news festers in the workplace because there is no counter-
weight. A manager who addresses the situation honestly can provide balance.
Call your people together and tell them what you can tell them. Repeat
this process frequently, even when there are no new developments, because in
our culture no news is news. Good leaders believe in telling it straight to
employees—good or bad.
Listen. Give people the opportunity to vent. Hold a staff meeting where peo-
ple can voice their concerns and get issues out on the table. Sometimes talking
about the fears can ameliorate them. Putting your finger in the dyke to plug a
leak will not work. Invite people to express themselves.
Get people’s attention. Close the factory and invite customers to speak to
workers. That’s what Ken Freeman did when he was president of a Corning
Glass division and later CEO of Quest Diagnostics. As he told the
when his employees heard customers speaking ill of their product, and
one even refusing to buy any more of it, employees paid notice. This executive
used his customers to get his people to pay attention. And they did; processes
were redone and quality improved.
Focus on the work. Communicating bad news and listening to the reaction
is essential, but eventually, say immediately, you need to get back to work. Shift