Don’t give me bad news

Nancy Kline in her superb book Time to Think describes a conversation with a senior civil servant whose department was going through wave after wave of changes to the way work was done and how things were structured. When asked how his managers were coping  with all of this, he responded, ‘I have no idea.  I don’t ask them.’  When asked ‘Why?’, he said, ‘They might tell me. We couldn’t have that.’  As Nancy goes on to explain, what he was really saying was thathe couldn’t handle that”.

How common is it for managers to shy away from facing up to the reality of what is going on around them, particularly when it might involve a face-to-face conversation with someone?  Very common, in my experience.   Confronting bad news, delivering home truths, providing feedback on performance, addressing inappropriate behaviour, or challenging resistance to change.  All of these scenarios present managers with situations which they either feel ill-equipped to handle effectively, or they ignore.

When managers fail to recognise an under-performing member of their team, there can be any number of underlying thinking errors or limiting beliefs at play.

For example:

  • They don’t want to admit they have someone under-performing as it may reflect badly on them
  • They don’t want to face the issue directly (it’s not in their nature), and they’re worried about handling any conflict that facing up to it might cause
  • The work is getting done to an ‘adequate enough’ level. Even though the individual is not adding as much as they potentially could, everyone’s reasonably happy – so why rock the boat?  (I dealt with this specific case in more detail in a previous post called Are you prepared to upset the Apple Cart?)
  • The individual is reasonably effective in some areas, so why not overlook or downplay issues in other areas where things could be better?
  • It is just a fact of life that some individuals are weak in certain skills or habits. We can’t change that.
  • The manager has been ‘friends’ with the individual and they’ve worked together a long time. They find it hard to confront them with hard messages.
  • The individual is a “nice” person, and it would hurt them to come down too hard on them
  • The individual is “slick” in that they always have a reason/response to issues raised with them, it’s just not worth the hassle of bringing up problems. After all, we’ve always managed to work round them in the past

Holding back, and not acting with complete honesty or sincerity does not create or encourage learning and improvement?  It does not prepare people for the future and help them adapt to change.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming this type of ‘limiting thinking’ is simple…..

  1. Put issues on the table in an open and honest way. Make sure the ‘problem’ is the issue and not the people talking about it. Be alert to points where people (including yourself) slip in to ‘personal’ judgements or comments.
  2. Be clear about what it is that concerns you about the situation. Make it clear that it is the behaviour that is a concern (not the actual person), and follow that up with rationale – i.e. give a reason why it is a concern. It is not enough to simply say “your behaviour stinks”… need to say what it is that is of concern. For example, it could be a concern about “checking your smartphone during meetings”. You could raise it in this way. “I am worried that it sends out a signal that you are not interested, and that you are disrespectful to the others in attendance. That reflects badly on us as a team, as well as on you as an individual.”
  3. Always invite the other person to tell you what they think about what you have just said and encourage a conversation that flows in a similar way. In other words do not make this a one-way conversation. You may actually learn something new about the situation by opening it up and listening to the other person’s perspective.

Fundamentally people like to be treated as adults, and do not like managers holding back from them?  They often know that something needs to be raised, but continue to play out a charade of ‘ignorance’ as long as the manager is prepared to do so.

How do you feel if someone holds back from you?  Would you prefer to be given an opportunity to improve, or to remain part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’?  

To learn more about how you or your teams can build skill in this area, and create a working environment built on constructive conversations, please do get in touch. Simply submit some basic details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you.


16 thoughts on “Don’t give me bad news

  1. Louis, this is something that a lot of people will have seen or have experienced first hand. I like your usual pragmatic response of providing some real guidance points to help. I do feel, however, that these overlook a key element that you spelled out in the initial paragraphs – that the ‘issue’ is the change to the situation. By this I mean that the Manager example you provided recognized that people would have issues and didn’t want to address these because it was such a big job, a headache for them or they just didn’t have the skills. In this sense the issue is in proper change management, people management and strategic realignment. It is all too easy for weak managers to blame their teams when their behaviors do not magically change without support and time to adjust.
    I think your points are definitely appropriate to when the individual is the issue but it would also be great to see further ones for when they are not.
    As usual, a very thought provoking article.
    Thanks. Craig.

    • That’s a really good observation Craig, and you are right to point it out. In almost every situation I have encountered, where a manager has had ‘some difficulty’ with a ‘troublesome employee’, detailed analysis of the interactions and conversations (or lack of) between the manager and employee in the preceding period, reveal areas where the manager has not been as effective as they could have been. In fact, in many cases they do not actually do or say what they ‘believe’ they do (their received theory of best practice). Fortunately there are ways to address this with managers, but it can be a challenge for them to accept that their actual behaviour differs so markedly from their assumed theories of practice. Thanks for picking up on such a rich point.

  2. So important to invite them to tell you. Often we just say something like – “any questions or thoughts”? How about something specific instead… “tell me what you like most or least about this?”, “what would help you be successful despite this challenge?”, “what is your biggest concern?”. Don’t do open ended questions or they will likely bail on telling you what you really need to know. – Loved the post and such a big challenge in many organizations.

    • I like that Scott. I can see possible pitfalls of being too open-ended. Also, important to get a dialogue going – as the manager needs to be genuinely open to finding stuff out that he/she didn’t know before (i.e. this doesn’t work if they have already made up their mind, and are just going through the motions).

  3. Great advice. Giving bad news is emotionally challenging. Leaders need to prepare carefully – strong opening and specific behavioral feedback as you suggest. They also need to come up with a good end game – what is it I want to accomplish? Usually, the goal should be joint problem solving. And, leaders also need to prepare themselves emotionally. This type of conversation is draining.

    • Draining indeed (but really satisfying when it goes well). Also, one point with regard to your need for an end game. While I agree with you, there is a bit of a danger in having that ‘end game’ too firmly planned beforehand. It could influence the conversation to simply be steered in that direction, and run the risk of the manager not being ready to genuinely listen or be prepared for different outcomes that could be more effective (especially if created and owned by the other person).

  4. Hi Louis – thanks for your blog. In my experience there are many ‘leaders’ who do not take responsibility to help others to develop, which is a fundamental part of their role. I would add, in regards to your list of 3 stages that is is often best to apply elements of your third step as the first step i.e. asking the individual involved how they are going, what are the current successes, issues etc. This can be a powerful way to get a feel for the situation, see if they are aware or avoiding issues and similar responses. Often the issues are raised by them and the conversation can be less challenging as a result.

    Re leadership and avoidance I wrote a similar point in a recent blog: Developing soft-skills (or ‘hard skills’) requires effort, focus and self-awareness amongst other elements. Is this why the leadership skills that fall under this category are often the ones that are least practiced and improved. Is it fear? If a leader asks the question of his or her team, they may not like nor be willing to acknowledge the answer. So is there a view for some leaders, based on fear, that it is best to not ask in the first place? (
    Thanks again and keep up the great thought-provoking blogs. Steve

    • Thanks for your comments Steve. Good point on the subject of order. I agree. Perhaps it is better to think about the steps as a circle – and you can enter the circle at whatever point makes most sense for that situation. Like most models it is also recursive.

      I’ll check out your recent blog. Thanks for that.

  5. I think your analysis is great and you have identified some very common issues in the workplace.
    Nancy Kline puts her finger on the problem when she spots that “He couldn’t handle that”. I am interested in the inner development of a leader so that they can handle these situations. Maybe they should take your advice and apply it to themselves first? After all, if you can’t be honest (really honest) with your self – then how can you be frank with others.

    • Thanks Charlie for your kind words. I’m with you in that this is ‘core’ to the inner development of leaders. What we are after are leaders who are aware of their impact in this area, and open to learning/development to become as effective as they can be.

  6. I think there are some great tips here and I enjoy reading all the responses too. For me, what comes out most is this whole avoidance of issues. It’s just much easier to avoid and I am guessing that employees “enable” this because they don’t really want to talk about this stuff either! Worse though is that many people in leadership positions don’t get the support they need to help them develop these skills or that they have risen to their position because of everything but their ability to communicate.

    • Thanks Emma. You are right that it is a two way ‘arrangement’ between manager and employee when it comes to avoidance. And definitely spot on that most leaders are not given the opportunity to become more self-aware of the role they play in this and to develop the skills that enable more productive conversations. However, even when that awareness is ignited, unless a programme of sustained reinforcement, role-modelling, refresher training and leadership support is put in place, human nature means that people revert very quickly to their behavioural comfort zone. Embedding this new way of conversing, like many skills, requires dedicated and prolonged commitment and practice. But, it can be done.

  7. Hi Louis…thanks for the Twitter mention which connected me to this discussion. I saved it to my desktop and am only getting round to it now.

    When I first read your post I realized I had some strong opinions on it because I have been doing Assessment Based Leadership and Team training for over 12 years…6300+ people during that time and the above management style is one that I try to break through.

    The problem discussed above did not start when this person was employed by the company. Such impact started the day the left formal education. When I do the soft skills training events, I always ask 2 questions to start. First…how many of you were trained basic financial management skills during the public and high school years. Very few hands go up. The second question is similar…how many of you were trained in how to relate to, and understand people during those same school years.? Even fewer hands go up which is sad because when you consider life at its lowest common denominator, the years we live are about those two areas…Money & People.

    I teach about people and when I read your post I saw people issues and patterns all through it. The silent treatment is a tendency of certain types of people; as is the opposite, the over verbal treatment another type. Both of these types will remain ineffective which in time will either lead to their realization of their need for, and application of personal change or their removal from the position or organization. Regardless, neither of them, should they stay in that state your article addresses will ever be leaders.

    I am not certain that at a primary level any formula or step by step management course will ever rectify the problem. One can’t do geometry without understanding basic math. One can’t manage or lead staff or team without understanding the basics of people. The inability to relate to people makes up about 46% of the reasons why organizations fail. The inability to self management makes up about 26% of the reason why organizations fail. This means that about 72% of the reasons why organizations fail directly relates to tones understanding of self and others. If in the above scenario, the manager knew both his and his fellow workers blinds spots and strengths, there would be no need to either go silent or verbal. Dealing with the stated problem may still create some discomfort, but not near as much as when the manager plays the ostrich, hoping it would just go away. In time it will come back to bite…and bite hard. Giving bad new is challenging, but not giving it can be even more challenging. This spells out the difference between Leadership & Team, and Management & Staff. I think you know on which side I fall.

    • Thanks Murray, I so appreciate you taking the time to share your views on this important topic. I agree – it is a much neglected area of development, that we somehow just expect people to get on with (and assume they know how to). You make a comment about ‘formal eduction’ and I think there is a really good argument to start introducing awareness of these skills into schools and colleges. I am aware of some pilot schemes which are introducing coaching skills with sixth-formers which are going really well, and I think we need more of it. Start ’em young and maybe (just maybe) we will nudge the dial in a healthier direction and see more constructive workplace conversations taking place.

  8. Pingback: The Case for Humble Inquiry | Gyro Consulting Services

  9. Reblogged this on Gyro Consulting Services and commented:

    A recent discussion with a client about a business problem they were facing prompted me to dig out this blog post that I wrote back in 2012. It would appear that the problems organisations face as a result of people ‘avoiding’ difficult conversations is as rife as ever. I should not be surprised. People do not like giving or hearing difficult messages, and even those who know that to be true, often lack the skills required to overcome their natural instinct to ‘avoid’, ‘deflect’, ‘normalise’ and ‘tolerate’ the unacceptable. More work is needed in this vital area to raise capability.

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