Monday, August 27, 2012

The Good News About Giving Bad News

I was given two rounds of bad news last week.  In one situation, the bad news was delivered appropriately, and the situation ended quite well.  In the other, well, the way the message was relayed made the bad news even worse.  With it being a “bad news week,” I had the chance to really reflect on the finesse necessary when delivering bad news.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the degree in which news is perceived as good or bad is often directly correlated to how the message is relayed.  Needless to say, that has major implications for any “people person” position, and education is no exception.

Whether teacher, building leader, or district administrator, we’ve all had the opportunity to be on both the receiving and supplying ends of bad news.  As receivers, there is only so much we can do.  If we have a good enough outlook, and the bad news is not catastrophic, we often validate its impact on the world around us, and set to work dealing with it.  But, as deliverers, we have much more say in the matter.  In these instances, we often have to deal with both the news, and the fallback from delivering it.  But, with that added weight also comes decision-making power on how we choose to relay that information.  And, as contrary as it might sound, there are good ways to deliver bad news, and in fact, from a community and collaboration standpoint, bad news can actually be quite good.

So, how do you deliver bad news well?  Here are three rules to never forget:
  1. Deliver bad news early and often.  Chances are, delivering bad news isn’t on the top of any leader’s “To Do” list.  It often gets put off as long as possible, so we can focus on the items that bring joy to people, rather than pain.  But, waiting can be problematic.  Aside from any initial waiting necessary to collect fact-based information, bad news should be delivered as soon as it is complete, and as often as updates are available.  While this sounds like bad news overload, the opposite is even worse.  If you've ever been in a situation where people discovered bad news before you had the chance to deliver it, you know how off-putting it can be.  It can cause lack of trust and respect, rather than putting the focus on moving forward.  In short, it presents additional hurdles that deliverers and receivers of news have to negotiate.  It literally makes everyone’s life more difficult.  So, share information as soon as you can.  Inform receivers that more information will be coming, and though it might be tough to handle, it is important to you that everyone is kept in the loop.  This builds capacity, and solidifies a team that you’ll need to help you address the crisis.
  2.  If you must delegate a deliverer, make the message incorruptible.  The challenge with bad news is that everybody hears it differently.  So, if you can’t deliver the news and have to delegate a messenger (never ideal, but as we all know, it does happen), make sure the messenger knows the ins-and-outs of the news, and that you've briefed that person on potential questions coming from receivers.  The worst result of delegation happens when a message is delivered that is wrong, or a question is asked that is answered incorrectly.  It’s never fun for the messenger to go back and correct his/her mistake, and it is never pleasant to have to undo damage a messenger may have made that likely resulted from your inability to get the message across correctly.  So, deliver all bad news yourself.  If you can’t, delegate effectively, and know your audience.
  3.  Finally, empathize, encourage, and embark.  At times, bad news is taken well.  At others, time stops.  As a deliverer, you must first empathize with your audience.  Allow receivers to cry, vent, be alone, etc. with the understanding that you are a shoulder if needed.  Next, encourage your receivers to reflect on the news and let them know that you will work to help them deal and move on, and will provide support, leadership, and understanding.  Never take responses from bad news as personal, and be active without being reactive.  Finally, embark on a journey to turn the bad news into something good.  Use the news to help solidify the community and move forward.  Constantly discuss where you’re going as opposed to where you've been.
These three rules aren't the only considerations that should be made when delivering bad news, but they are the three that I have found to be essential when I’m tasked with being a deliverer.  I've found that if nothing else, rule #1 is the trump card.  As upsetting as bad news is, when information is shared regularly and often, you've already built capacity as a leader focused on the community-at-large, and as we know, the only way to truly grow from bad news is to have family, friends, and colleagues working together and supporting each other.

I hope that the start of your school year is only filled with great news!

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