Bad news doesn’t improve with age, or so I learned in a leadership training program I attended some years ago.
And it doesn’t, even though modern business leaders have learned another important lesson: If they hide bad news — or hide from it — for a few fiscal quarters they can bank a big enough bonus to retire, while the consequences become someone else’s problem. Yours, for example.
If you hide from bad news, though, it will simply get worse, so you need to find out what’s really going on in your organization in time to prevent minor glitches from becoming crises. That isn’t easy, because once your career has progressed beyond a direct supervisory role to middle management, every bit of information that reaches your desk has been filtered. That filtering takes two forms: Hiding bad news to stay out of trouble, and accentuating bad news to get someone else into trouble. Straight information is hard to come by. How can you maximize your chances of getting some?
First and most important, make sure of your facts. Just because someone reports a problem doesn’t mean there is a problem. Especially if the news is about someone else, make sure you ask the responsible party directly.
Next, don’t punish any bearer of bad tidings, even if the bearer is also the responsible party. If your first reaction to bad news is anger, you’re reinforcing exactly the wrong behavior. Your first reaction should be to ask the responsible party what’s being done to fix the problem. Figure out if you need to make a personnel adjustment after the problem has been dealt with, based on how it happened and how the responsible party dealt with it.
Nearly as important, surround yourself with people who aren’t impressed with you or your title. If the people who report to you try to curry favor as a career advancement strategy, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear, not what they think you ought to hear.
Your direct reports also should understand the value of making their staff look good. When the time comes to present information, do they deliver it themselves, or do they bring along the staffers who know it best? If they present it themselves, by themselves, it’s a strong indicator that they want to control the information you receive and act on.
These pointers are a good start. Next week’s column will contain more straight information about getting straight information.