How to be the best bad news bear(er)

From automotive defects to massive oil spills, the news is littered with examples of how not to communicate in a time of crisis. Here are four ways in which you can minimize the damage.

Few enjoy being the bearer of bad news. According to one study, we fear that delivering the news will reflect poorly on us—even if we had little to do with the unhappiness in question. In business, the fear becomes more specific: delivering bad news might lead to our dismissal, we worry, and so we dawdle in our deliveries.

Whatever the fear, the reality is that delivering bad news—especially bad financial news—is a necessity of business life. So, how to get the dirty deed done? Here are four fail-safe tips:

1. DO IT NOW

Because we fear it, our first inclination is to avoid it. Don’t. Take it from Toyota, which paid a high price for delaying the delivery of their bad news. In 2009 and 2010, the auto manufacturer had to recall 7.5 million vehicles for sticky gas peddles and suspend the sale of eight of its best-selling cars. As bad as that may have been, the recall quickly turned into a public relations crisis, partly because Toyota was slow to share their knowledge of the defects. As soon as an issue becomes clear, don’t delay: organize the first possible opportunity to discuss it with those concerned, whether superiors, colleagues, employees or clients.

2. GET IT RIGHT

When it comes to bad news, accuracy is just as important as speed. Before sharing it, be sure you can demonstrate it objectively, without exaggeration or diminishment. When a United Airlines passenger was violently removed from his overbooked flight last March, the CEO tried to minimize the issue by describing it as a “re-accommodation.” This rang false to the millions that had already seen the viral video footage of the removal, and the United brand (and stock price) took a hit. Accuracy counts in facts, figures and delivery: consider charts, reports, or even a presentation to clearly illustrate the issue.

3. DON’T BE SHY

Even the timeliest and most accurate bad business news may go unheard if delivered evasively or indirectly. Equifax learned this lesson in its recent bungling of a data breach that affected 143 million Americans and 100,000 Canadians. For example, it initially chose not to notify its customers directly, but instead set up a website; neither customers nor the market appreciated its prevarications. Despite our natural inclination to avoid discomfort and awkwardness, the best way through delivering bad news is to be firm and direct.

4. BE HELPFUL

Finally, when delivering bad business news, be sure to provide potentially viable solutions alongside your concerns, whenever possible. If the error was yours, own it—and explain the steps you will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward missed that opportunity when he tried to shift the blame for Deepwater Horizon, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, to his suppliers (“This was not our accident … This was not our drilling rig ...”). The market didn’t buy that argument, and neither did a federal judge: the firm was fined a record US$18 billion for “gross negligence.” If, on the other hand, the problem is indeed external, suggest steps your own firm can take to remedy the issue.

Delivering bad news can be a tense, uncomfortable experience. But, by presenting yours promptly, accurately, directly and constructively, you’ll preserve the opportunity to turn it into a positive outcome for everyone involved.

KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING

What’s your approach to delivering bad business news? Do you have any stories of when it went particularly well or poorly?

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CPA Canada

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