Hopefully, you won't have to do it often, but delivering bad news once in a while comes with the territory if you're a leader. And the real tough cookie is, the disdain you feel rolling toward you when you do isn't in your head--people really do tend to "shoot the messenger" and get mad at you for bringing the information. And scientists now say they have a simple explanation for why this happens.

11 studies show the same target

Led by Leslie John of Harvard University, a team of researchers conducted a series of 11 different experiments. These studies put the participants into safe situations where a messenger brought them bad news, such as being told they didn't win money in a hat game or that, in an imagined medical scenario, they had a disease.

The researchers found that participants generally saw the person who delivered the bad news as less likeable, and that their irritation went to that person instead of being diffused to others in the room. And the more illogical or unexpected the bad news was, the more upset the participants were.

Why people react poorly

Based on the results of the studies, the researchers assert that this common reaction to bad news comes from our basic needs for fairness, justice and predictability. We have a hardwired desire to believe in these things, because they give us a sense that we're safer and contribute to our sense of worth.

But just because we believe in fairness, justice and predictability to thwart anxiety doesn't mean those things actually are always present in the world. Sometimes there really isn't any rhyme or reason to what happens, and when we encounter those situations, we need a way to tip the scale back to balance.

So instead of saying "This doesn't make sense" and directing our frustration at what's abstract, we channel it toward something that's much more tangible and say "You must have some ulterior purpose for making me feel like crap, because then at least I have a why for your behavior and can process it."

Now, all of a sudden, with that shift to believing the messenger is out to get you for some reason, you can rage against them the way you would any other threat. Raise your voice. Hurl an insult. Threaten to file a complaint or sue. In your head, it's all justifiable, because you're just setting them straight based on your perception of what "should" be. (And how could that perception ever be wrong?!)

How to respond

Given the findings, if you have to deliver bad news, you'd likely do well to remember that their response isn't personal against you, even if it feels that way. If you can keep that objectivity, you're in a better position to be empathetic and avoid escalating the situation. You can admit that the situation is crappy rather than getting defensive and trying to justify the message, and you can take the time to hear them out and be vulnerable enough to admit your own feelings and thoughts. And complete transparency about how decisions were made or what led up to the problem will benefit you, too, because it shows your listener what or who's really to blame.

Published on: Jun 25, 2019
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