Bad News Can Always Get Worse

Bad news…

A list came out one night at sea, and it wasn’t a good one. Specifically, it was bad news for a list of certain people. It wasn’t official, but it was pretty close, and the boss and I knew this was exactly what seven or eight people didn’t want to hear. We had two choices: Tell those people the bad news immediately, or not.

– We could wait for the list to be official in a month, hoping for one or two names to come off the list.

– We could talk amongst ourselves about our schedule and how much it would distract everyone, and distractions are bad.

– We could say that it’s on a ‘need to know’ basis, and those people don’t need to know…yet.

Instead, we pulled everyone into the office, one at a time, and told them their names were on a list they didn’t want it on. We were honest with their chances to get off the list, and we collected questions that we could ask upwards. To this day, I’m certain we did the right thing when not everyone in our position chose to tell people immediately.

We have a common phrase in the Navy: Don’t be the junior guy with the secret. If you know something, tell the person above you. Information moving up to the person who can use it is important. Here’s a new version of that phrase I’ve never heard but will start sharing: If you can, don’t be the senior guy with the secret either.

When all was said and done, we couldn’t get anyone off the list. We created the best arguments we could, but no luck. At least they could talk to their families as soon as possible. The sharing of bad news early instead of later never turned out to be the issue. In our profession, we get bad news. It’s part of the day job. The real issue was trust.

For those in similar positions, who knew the bad news and justified some decision not to tell their people, the audience couldn’t accept their reasons when the cards were finally on the table. Some waited weeks, some waited more than a month.

Bad news won’t magically get better. It almost always gets worse with time.

What leaders choose to do with bad news has long-lasting effects, far beyond the immediate rough patch. Sometimes, we have to tell our people early, and in doing so, some of them need to make a decision to stay or go, leave or commit to something they didn’t plan for.

Rumors will always be more dangerous to an organization than the truth, even if it’s bad news. In this instance, people were no more or less distracted by the bad news than the rumor of it, which will always exist. No matter what organization you’re in, if there’s bad news, people will know. They may not know what it is, or what names are on the list, but they’ll know it is coming. The best I can ever recommend is that the leaders get ahead of it, put it out in the open, and refocus everyone on the task at hand.

Putting out the bad news, the when and way you do it, can be uncomfortable. There’s also the unexpected response that can quickly get out of hand, even when you tell them up front. For those reasons and more, our brains don’t want to do it, and distractions or delays to uncomfortable conversations are always tempting.

If telling people immediately sucked, and trust me it did, just imagine how much it would suck if people found out that we’d known a month ago and just didn’t tell anyone because, basically, we didn’t want to. No matter what reason you use to define the gap between you knowing and people telling their families, it will all sound like excuses to them. You don’t get to define how they interpret your reasoning.

When you see bad news on the horizon, an extended deployment, someone not getting that new position, lay-offs, tell your people the possibility exists so they have a chance to adjust. If that means that some of them leave, that’s their choice and they deserve the chance to make a decision.

When the dust settles on whatever bad situation you’re in at the moment, the only thing that really matters to your people is if they can trust you. You only get one chance to get it right.

And yes, sometimes we’re given a direct order to be the senior guy with the secret. It happens, and that’s a tough part of being senior. Other than those moments, be wary of any reason you make up to not share bad news early. It’s likely just an excuse to not get into the messy stuff. Handle bad news poorly, and you’ll have lost trust. In most organizations, especially mine, when your people don’t trust you, it’s all over.

It’s hard to come up with questions that won’t incite some ranting, but I’ll ask some anyway.

– Have you ever gotten that bad news you needed to share, and how did you handle it?

– Have you seen an organization deal with bad news the wrong way, and how did that affect everyone?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.