Dealing with bad news is one of the main responsibilities of a leader. Welcome to leadership.

Most of my day is receiving bad news that needs my attention: Our publisher sets an unreasonable manuscript deadline, and I need to personally call the editor and negotiate an extension. A consultant misses their flight to a client engagement, and I need to find a replacement with similar competence and content knowledge. A job offer to a new candidate is delayed by human resources, and I need to expedite it before the candidate accepts another position and we have to begin a new search.

These are every day, very real issues, all generally bad news. Rarely if ever does a team member start a conversation with "Scott, I have great news!" The good news goes elsewhere; the bad news comes straight to me in a consistent stream. That's actually fine; it's my job as a senior leader to handle it.

But there's a caveat: don't let your brand devolve into the "constant fixer," or you'll get stuck there as a constant dumping ground. Empower your team to handle the problems they are truly capable of solving. But you want to know whatever it is they know. Keep that door open.

Wrong news is worse than bad news. 

But bosses also often get wrong news. Plainly stated, bringing the boss wrong news means you're not competent, at least on a particular issue. Wrong news means you're guessing, assuming, blustering, or just plain making stuff up. Wrong news tells me you haven't done your research, prepared, or gotten to the bottom of an issue before it gets to me. It shows me that you don't know the difference and you're not closely connected to the business, client, culture, systems, or strategy to even know it's wrong news. You think it's bad news. Wrong is worse!

In a former role as a sales leader, I was once tracking dozens of deals across 15 salespeople. The end of the quarter was approaching, and one particular six-figure deal had been progressing nicely (or so I thought) with a new organization. The salesperson insisted they were just shy of closing it and one final visit by me would tip it over. What sales leader could resist that invitation?

So naturally, I jumped on a plane and accompanied my associate to the client. I kid you not, five minutes into the meeting with the client (and I use the word client liberally because they, in fact, didn't become one, then or ever), I determined they were nowhere near signing the deal.

Worse, the people we were meeting with were not in a position to even approve the deal, a fact I learned by asking the very complex question: "So are you the decision-maker on this?" A signed deal? Heck, there was no deal. In case you're wondering, this wasn't bad news. This was flat-out wrong news. Let's just say the post-client debrief with my associate was a learning moment for them.

Coach your team to get it right.

Most wrong news is the result of a team member's unwillingness to move outside of their comfort zone. Refusing to ask clear questions and request clear answers. Either these associates don't feel confident in their own skills, don't believe they have the right to drill down on an issue, or worse, don't even know which questions to ask. Generally speaking, remarkable clarity can come from just one more question.

If you want to get it right, even if the news turns out to be bad, coach your colleagues on the differences and role-play how to ensure wrong news is eliminated. 

  1. As a leader, the culture you create has a direct effect on the level of wrong news people deliver to you. Wrong news is nearly always based in fear. Build a culture where it's safe to tell the truth, talk straight and admit mistakes. Lessen fear, and you'll lessen wrong news.
  2. Teach your team members to ask better questions of their clients, vendors, and partners. Often just one more question will uncover vital facts and flush out decision-making criteria.
  3. Coach colleagues on how to move outside their comfort zones. Asking relevant questions often requires both practice and skills. Better questions yield better answers.
  4. Model the behaviors you want to see in your team. Demonstrate the dialog you demand by demonstrating it with your own leader, customers, and stakeholders. Use specific language. Don't overstate or embellish. Become comfortable saying, " I don't know, but I'll find out and report back." When the boss is confident (and vulnerable) enough to says this, it sets the standard for everyone.

Don't tell me we lost the deal that never was. Tell me we lost the deal even though you exhausted every conceivable option and intend to go back one more time.

As a leader, acting on too much wrong information can be a career killer. Coach your team to ask the right questions and to make sure they have the facts straight. Reinforce that bad news is acceptable, as long as it's not rooted in wrong news.

Published on: Nov 4, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.