Bad News is Good News

Most of us don’t like to be bearer of  bad news, neither do we like to hear bad news. However, one of the most important things that you could do is to create a culture where the people you lead feel that it is fine to be the bearer of bad news – the earlier the better.

This is critical for the following reasons:

  • If there is any bad news, it is best if we bring it out in the open and deal with it sooner than later.
  • Most bad news are not as bad as they originally seem to be, when uncovered.
  • Bad news have a way of becoming progressively worse with time. So, the best and the easiest time to address it is when it is uncovered.
  • As a leader, you can then change expectations (yours as well as any other stakeholders) if needed. No one likes a bad surprise, specially, when it can’t be addressed and when shared in a group.
As a leader, we need to create a culture where people don't fear being the bearer of bad news Click To Tweet

Some ways to create such a culture are:

Don’t Fire the Messenger:

One of the biggest mistakes that leaders do when it comes to creating an open culture is they fire the messenger who brings them bad news. The person who brings in the bad news is not the bad guy. To the contrary, you need to appreciate the person who brings forward the bad news – so that you can address it when it is the easiest to address it rather than allow the bad news to become worse.

Curiosity Never Killed the Cat:

As a leader, we need to be curious. Instead of reacting and playing to our emotions when we receive bad news, we need to become curious and use the power of inquisitive questioning to get to the root of the problem that led to the bad news. Once, the root cause is identified, it is much easier to address the same. There is a great book called Ask More by Frank SESNO and Wolf Blitzer, in which the authors cover the inquisitive line of inquiry through the power of asking the right questions. Each one of us who leads should read the book and learn the ability to ask the right questions. 

Celebrate Success (with the Bearer of Bad News)

As a leader, once we have successfully address the underlying core problem that led to the bad news, we should call upon the bearer of bad news and celebrate with them. Ideally, I generally prefer to this in private as I don’t want everyone in my team to start searching for problems just because problem finding is publicly rewarded. If that happens, there is a good possibility that you will be inundated with a lot of bad news (which may or may not be as bad as they will make it to be).

Keep a Reminder: Bad News = Good News

It is easy for us to forget all of these and reach and sway to our emotions. So, if we know that it is difficult for us to stay in control when someone brings bad news, we can always create a plaque or something else that constantly reminds us that it is important that your team members actually feel that it is not just ok to bring you bad news but it is imperative that they bring it to you as soon as they possible.

Don’t come to me with a problem

Lastly, we need to be careful not to make the mistake of telling – “Don’t come to me with problems“. Once you start doing this, you can rest assured that you will never hear any bad news – you will only hear about catastrophes or disasters, that could have been averted.


Irrespective of what we say, our team will take cues from how we react. If we are genuinely inquisitive and express gratitude to our people who bring bad news to us, they will understand and start behaving in a way that will bring any potential bad news to you as soon as possible and you can then address them before they take a life of their own.

Don’t Come to Me with a Problem

I have heard many leaders use some variation of this quote with their sub-ordinates. In the video below, coach Marshall Goldsmith and Sam Shriver share why this is probably the worst thing that a leader can do to their sub-ordinates and their companies.

Please take the time to watch the video before we continue our conversation.

This video is part of a series of conversation that both these gentlemen have and I think it is worth your time to listen to the entire series. But for now, lets focus our attention on this particular topic at hand.

When you dig deeper, you find the most managers or leaders use this not to help their employees but use this to hide behind this quote. This sounds like you expect your team to know or have solutions to all problems and that these are trivial issues that you don’t want to be bothered with, as you have to deal with higher order of things to think through.

Most leaders use this to hide the fact that it is possible that they might not have all the answers, so they use this statement to hide their fear – the fear that they might be judged by their employees that they don’t have all the answers. What Marshall and Bob are trying to tell here is that it is ok to not have all the answers – it is ok for both the employees and the leaders to not have all the answers. They can work through the problem and can come up with the answers.

Some of the problems that this creates is:

  1. Employees learn that if they have a problem, they have to either solve it by themselves or ignore the problem, rather than bring it up for discussion.
  2. Employees also learn that they can’t trust their leaders to help them off, in situations of need.
  3. This is also a great coaching opportunity that went waste.
If your employees come to you with a problem, use it as an opportunity to coach them. Click To Tweet

I have seen one leader,  who used such instances to coach his employees very effectively. Lets call this leader – Murali. Lets assume that you have a problem for which you don’t have a solution and your went to Murali and shared your problem. The first thing that he would say is “Great. Now, let’s get to work”. He will then ask you to explain the problem in detail. He will prod you to tell him what you think caused the problem. IF you don’t know, he would ask you to take your best guess and then ask you how would you verify or test this assumption about the cause of the problem.

He would get you to then validate the cause of the problem and once the cause had been confirmed, he would then ask you if you still needed his help. If your assumption about the cause was not true, he would then ask you why did you make the assumption in the first case and why do you think it turned out not to be the case. Then, he will continue the same process until, you found the real cause of the problem. In most cases, the biggest challenge that people have when it comes to problem solving is identifying the right problem and the underlying cause of that problem. Once that is done, it is generally easy to find the solution to the problem.

In case, you could not figure out a solution, he would again use the same process – ask you to make a hypothesis for a solution and then use the cause and effect mechanism to figure out if that hypothesis is true and if the idea would solve the problem. If not, start over again, but before doing so, reflect on why the initial hypothesis was wrong.

This way, every time one of his employees came to him with a problem, he used it as an opportunity to coach his employees on how to go about solving their problem. With time, the instances of his employees coming to him with their problems reduced as they had learnt the process to use to solve their problems themselves. They would still go to him with problems that they couldn’t solve themselves, but then these were problems that are much more complex and usually required his expertise and in most cases for him to intervene to solve the problem.

Murali was indeed my first boss from whom I learnt a lot about management and leadership – his ability to remain open and generally not order you to do something just because he is the boss and due to his authority. He mostly allowed us to get to where he wanted us to go by allowing us to figure it out ourselves. I would take this opportunity to thank him and all the other leaders who have taught me all that I know about leadership and how to lead. #Gratitude.