How Great Leaders Deliver Bad News
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
If you ask any ten leaders what’s the hardest part of their job, I’ll bet that 9 of them will say some version of “giving bad news.”
From firing people to having serious performance conversations, from letting employees know the company’s not doing well to explaining a screw-up to the press, these are the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls, situations that make most leaders want to go home and pull the covers up over their heads.
Yet navigating these situations well is a defining characteristic of truly followable and inspiring leaders. When a leader is straightforward in saying the toughest stuff, people assume (rightly) that he or she will be courageous in all kinds of essential ways: making difficult decisions; taking responsibility for them; apologizing for mistakes. In other words, delivering bad news well demonstrates personal courage: it shows that you will do things that are personally uncomfortable or difficult for the good of the enterprise.
Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of this being done poorly; bad news being downplayed, blamed on someone else, or simply lied about. One of the most egregious in recent history was former BP CEO’s Tony Hayward’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which 11 people lost their lives and billions of gallons of oil ended up in the Gulf of Mexico. As the disaster unfolded, Hayward characterized the spill as “relatively tiny” in comparison with the size of the ocean, saying that the environmental impact of the Gulf spill would likely be “very very modest.” Most infamously, even when he apologized, he did it with a self-centered twist that made everyone cringe, saying “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back."
Tony broke pretty much every one of the cardinal rules for delivering bad news well. Here’s what he—and every leader who’s ever handled bad news badly—could and should have done:
Speak up. Don’t push it under the carpet. A couple of years ago I was talking with a CEO about a tough and contentious lawsuit in which his company was about to become involved. I listened as he pretty much convinced himself that it was better not to say anything about it at his next senior staff meeting (“people will be distracted by it,” “it doesn’t really affect them,” etc., etc.). When he asked my opinion, I told him I thought he was fooling himself, and that he was simply trying to avoid bringing up a difficult subject. Especially when bad news is obvious to everyone—internally, externally, or both—it’s wishful thinking to believe “it will blow over” or “people don’t care that much.” You will just look like a chicken—and when you ultimately have to address it (you will), it will be virtually impossible not to come across as defensive and wrong-footed. So: when something has gone awry, immediately come up with a plan for communicating it, even though it will be uncomfortable, embarrassing, awkward, even painful. And communicate it using the steps outlined below.
Be accurate. Don’t spin. Let Tony Hayward be a cautionary tale: if you try to make a bad thing sound like a not-so-bad thing, it will backfire. You’ll have to explain your explanation, and your credibility will continue to plummet. Say as much as you can (sometimes confidentiality issues create constraints—but you can say that, too), and be as accurate and objective as possible. My CEO client and friend (above) ended up saying, “We are likely to be involved in this lawsuit; here’s the basis of it. We believe it’s without merit, and that ultimately we’ll win, but it will certainly cause a good deal of talk in the press.” Simple, clear, true, balanced.
Take responsibility. Don’t play the blame game. At many points as the BP disaster unfolded, Hayward tried to imply that BP wasn’t really at fault. In one interview with the London Telegraph, he worked hard to weasel out of taking responsibility: “This is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures. A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early to understand the cause.” When a leader doesn’t try to squirm out from under, though, and instead takes full responsibility for whatever he or she has done, or—and this is important—for whatever the company has done, it sends a powerful signal of confidence, honor, and courage. Let me go back to that italicized phrase: if you are the leader of a company, and something bad has happened—a mistake, poor results, a lousy customer service situation—it happened on your watch, and to try to distance yourself from the company and talk about the problem as though you weren’t involved is never a good idea. A great example of this done right was when JetBlue stranded a plane full of customers on the tarmac for many many hours—and that was just one snafu in, as David Neeleman, JetBlue’s founder and CEO, said, “our worst operational week ever.” Here’s Neeleman taking full responsibility in the letter he wrote to all JetBlue customers: “Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that we caused. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.” I want to work for him just on the basis of that paragraph.
Listen. Don’t try to talk people out of being upset. Once you’ve let a big cat out of a big bag, you need to let people say what they think and feel about it. Some leaders get it right up to this point—they quickly say what’s true, and take responsibility for it—and then they blow it by trying to stifle people’s natural reactions. I once sat in a meeting while the Regional VP for a large consumer goods company told people (very clearly and accurately) that they were going to be at the effect of a huge business process change that was coming down from headquarters without either the time or resources needed to make it happen well. When people were understandably upset, and wanted both to vent and to ask questions, he cut them off by saying, “It’s no use to bitch and moan—let’s just make it happen.” Fortunately, I was able to convince him later that inviting and working through people’s response would make it much more likely that they could and would make it happen. If you share bad news and then aren’t willing to take in the response, it feels as though you’re throwing something nasty on their desks and walking away.
Say what you’ll do next. This is the pivot point where life beyond the bad news begins. Great leaders are especially good at this. Again, David Neeleman’s apology letter offers a great example: “We are committed to you, our valued customers, and are taking immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us. We have begun putting a comprehensive plan in place to provide better and more timely information to you, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties in the future.” In the following paragraph of the letter, he goes on to offer monetary compensation for those most inconvenienced by the situation. The natural corollary of taking responsibility for the bad news is to say how you’re going to turn it around—and people expect and want that from their leaders. That’s why you’re sitting in the leader chair.
Do what you say—and repeat as needed. And then, you actually have to follow through. If you go through all the steps above, and then don’t take the actions needed to address the situation, you’ll probably be seen in an even worse light than if you did nothing. So make sure you deliver on your promises. And realize that difficult situations with their attendant bad news are seldom “one and done”—you’ll probably have to cycle through these steps more than once, and to multiple audiences.
The good news is, when you handle bad news in this way, it increases your confidence that you can handle similar difficulties in the future, and it increases your people’s confidence in you, as well. And—I’m not exaggerating here—it just might make the difference between failure and success for your company.