As the line in dozens of jokes reminds us, you have a choice when it comes to getting good or bad news first. And generally speaking, your team will give you kudos for delivering what's not so pleasant right out of the gate.

The gap between people who get news and those who give it

Researchers Angela Legg and Kate Sweeney of the University of California, Riverside, conducted a series of three studies to determine how people preferred to receive information.

In the first study, 78 percent of news recipients said they wanted to get bad news first. The consensus was that, this way, they wouldn't need to keep feeling anxious about whatever awfulness was going to drop. They could move past the junk and let more uplifting information color the rest of the day.

But the results also showed that most news bearers don't follow what recipients want. They can't stand how uncomfortable it is to burst happy bubbles and don't realize how tense it makes listeners to wait for the negative. So they avoid giving the bad news and serve it last.

Putting yourself in the recipient's shoes makes all the difference

In the second study, some of the news bearers were told to think about how the recipient would feel when getting the news. Other news bearers in a control group weren't told anything. The news bearers who were given instructions ended up more likely to give the bad news first compared to the control group. That is, by taking the recipients' perspective, they aligned themselves with what the recipients truly preferred.

Looking at this and the first study together, the clear takeaway for you as a leader is that, when something goes wrong or is bound to disappoint, you still can build a bridge to your team. Take a pause to resist acting based on what feels best for you. Consider your audience. Don't play the candy(wo)man and sugarcoat. Lead with the bad news, even if that means planning out some time for the team to cool off emotionally from what you've said. And particularly today, when workers actively look for authenticity, trust and purpose, there's little reason to fear honesty.

To change behavior, scratch that, reverse it

But let's not ignore the third study. The results here indicated that, even though most people want bad news first to preserve a decent mood, getting bad news last actually is more motivating when it comes to changing what people do. The rationale is that getting the good news last makes people feel like there's not as much gravity in the situation or need for a fix. But if you get the bad news last, then you're left with the sense that the circumstances really are dire enough to require behavioral change of some kind.

A great place to apply the third study is in your performance reviews. This naturally lends itself to ending the session by coming up with a strategic, cooperative plan for future improvements, which reassures the person you're talking to that initiating and following through with changes is actually feasible.

To conclude, remember that a balanced delivery matters. If the news is good, don't oversell, or you might come across as less genuine. And by the same token, if the news is bad, you can use language that's still hopeful and encouraging to prevent morale from completely nosediving. Just be transparent, and whatever the facts might be, behave as though every single person on the team has an equal entitlement to hear them.

Published on: Apr 30, 2019
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