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Being the bearer of bad news is all about managing emotions.
Being the bearer of bad news is all about managing emotions.

Is there ever a good way to deliver bad news?

From performance criticism to budget cuts, bad news is a part of business – but there are ways to mitigate and manage the damage, writes Bri Williams.

In Australia, we have experienced various degrees of lockdown across the country over the past year, and our political leaders have been grappling with how best to share bad news.

The NSW government started with a relatively light-touch approach that has become more stringent the longer lockdown has lasted. In Victoria, the message and conditions were restrictive from the get-go.

While I won’t go into the relative merits of each lockdown, I do want to reflect on the psychology of sharing and receiving bad news.

Given every business owner or leader will have to be the bearer of bad news at some time or another, what does science tell us about how to best approach it?

Forget the 'sandwich'
”Anchoring expectations low means you can come back with good news later, which is infinitely more pleasurable than anchoring high and having to return with bad news – however, anchoring low isn't without its problems.”

A popular approach to giving bad news, particularly in performance reviews, is to ‘sandwich’ the negatives between more positive information.

An example might be, “I really liked how you ran that last project, but I think you need to work harder on your presentation skills. All-in-all, I think you are a great team player.”

It’s a popular approach because it makes the deliverer feel better about giving criticism; it starts positive and ends positive, thereby avoiding any social awkwardness.

The problem is, most people are waiting for the “but” – they miss any of the good news you want them to hear. This is largely due to negativity bias, which means we are wired to pay attention to the negative more than the positive.

You are also confusing the message and diluting its importance.

Instead, try framing a performance review discussion by saying, “Thanks for meeting with me. Today I want to cover two aspects of your performance, as I see it. First, we’ll cover areas I’d like to see some improvement, and second, we’ll talk through where you are excelling. Does that sound good?”

This approach still has enough of the social niceties and it ends on a high, but it deliberately demarcates the negatives and positives.

Anchor expectations

There is a reason many of us seek to under promise and over deliver – it’s a form of expectation management.

Anchoring expectations low means you can come back with good news later, which is infinitely more pleasurable than anchoring high and having to return with bad news, which is a double whammy – not only was your original estimate off, but you failed to deliver as well!

However, anchoring low isn’t without its problems. Firstly, if you do it all the time to the same people, they will start to second-guess your ability to estimate accurately, and alter their expectations.

Secondly, if your anchor is unpalatable, you may be dismissed outright. For example, telling someone a repair will take you two months to complete instead of four weeks may mean they’ll choose someone else.

Thirdly, people will plan around your anchor, so if it’s too outlandish you might end up annoying them with budgeting or productivity gaps – put simply, delivering a project two weeks before you said you would may not be good news!

This low anchor has been a challenge with lockdowns, particularly in NSW. Restrictions started in a light-touch, advisory way before being progressively strengthened. As a result, the more stringent restrictions felt worse for people psychologically.

In Victoria, tough restrictions, such as a 5km boundary and a curfew, set a high anchor point; that meant the news improved as restrictions were relaxed and more freedoms allowed.

Experience is not the problem

Psychologist, author and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has described a psychological phenomenon called the ‘peak-end rule’ – human beings remember moments of peak emotion and the end of an experience.

Applying this to bad news, the biggest takeaway is to focus on how you make people feel and how you leave them.

Think back to the performance review example; the criticism you share will likely be the most intense part of the experience for the employee – the ‘peak’.

To manage their emotional response, be direct and assured, but also compassionate. Remember that you can use positive framing for bad news – something like, “This is where I see your greatest opportunity for development” – to signal your support for them.

The end is also important; leaving the employee with clear examples of what they are doing well means they will have the confidence and reassurance from you to continue to perform.


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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is founder of People Patterns, a specialist consultancy that applies behavioural science to everyday business issues. Visit: www.briwilliams.com

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