Professor of Management Robert Bies discusses with Georgetown McDonough his research on how business leaders deliver bad news — and why it matters.
What prompted you to conduct research on the delivery of bad news in an organization?
When I ask leaders to name their most difficult tasks, invariably the delivery of bad news is at the top of their list. Given that delivering bad news is such a challenging task for leaders, it led me to study the different strategies leaders use to deliver bad news — and how they do so effectively and ineffectively.
Why should we care about how to deliver bad news?
Life in organizations is punctuated by bad news. Each and every day, somebody is delivering bad news or receiving it. Whether it is giving negative performance feedback or announcing employee layoffs — or just saying no to a request — how one delivers the news has a big impact on how people react to the news.
Why is bad news difficult to deliver?
Bad news is a difficult task for leaders because it can be emotionally distressing. For example, those who deliver bad news may become a target of anger and retaliation by the recipient of the news. But, it can also be difficult because people do not know how to deliver bad news effectively. Bad news can be easier to deliver with experience and the right set of skills, which is the focus of my research.
Your research suggests there are three phases of delivering bad news. Why are they important?
The phases are preparation, delivery, and the transition. Most people focus on the actual delivery of the news, but so much can occur before the news is delivered — which is the preparation phase — that impacts how people react to the news. And after the bad news is delivered, leaders are not done because they have to demonstrate to a variety of different audiences that things are getting better, which is the transition phase. If the transition phase is managed properly, the bad news may become good news.
When should someone deliver bad news in person vs. over the phone or via email?
The rule of thumb is this: the more serious the bad news, the more important it is that you deliver it face-to-face. You don’t fire somebody via e-mail or a text or a tweet. And don’t forget, there are the “survivors” — those who still have a job but are affected by how you delivered the news to those who lost their jobs. The costs of losing the human touch in delivering very bad news can be damaging to leaders and their organizations, as was so vividly illustrated in the movie Up in the Air.
How will your research impact business leaders?
Whether a company’s earning fall short of stockholder expectations, or people cannot find a job in today’s economy, or a website is not effectively enrolling people for healthcare, bad news events seem the rule of the day, no longer the exception. It is in these times that a leader’s ability is most tested. Whether it is business or in government, delivering bad news more effectively can help leaders manage the anger of people constructively and rebuild their trust, both of which are necessary to motivate and mobilize people to move forward.