There’s an old joke about bad news that goes like this …
While traveling away from home, a woman calls her husband to check in. “How are things there?” she asks. “The cat’s dead,” her husband replies. “Whiskers is dead? How could you share such horrible news so bluntly?” she cries. “Well, it’s true,” he says. “What would you have me do instead?”
“You could at least soften the blow,” she starts. “Tell me something like this: ‘The other day Whiskers got out when I wasn’t looking. I tried for over an hour to catch her. Eventually, she got up on the roof. You know how slick that roof can get when it rains, and we’d just had a downpour, and the next thing I knew she was sliding twenty feet to the hard ground. I took her to the doctor. She did all she could, but it was too late. Whiskers has passed on to a better place.’ That’s how you deliver bad news,” the wife said.
“So anyway, how’s my mom?” she asks. “Well,” her husband began, “the other day she got out when I wasn’t looking …”
A shade dark, the joke still makes us smile — not just because it’s funny, because it’s familiar. No one likes bad news, either giving it or receiving it. But as negative as it first appears, bad news has powerful potential for leaders, organizations and all of us living in uncertain times.
Life comes with bad news, and by and large, we try to avoid it. What we know by experience, the data proves. According to Psychology Today, humans avoid bad news with remarkable consistency, even when embracing it would make them better off. For example, while news about our chances of contracting a life-threatening disease can tell us how to care for ourselves, postpone illness, even avoid it altogether, a whopping 93% of people who bafflingly know they are in the high-risk category for getting a disease, choose not to get a blood test that would tell them with certainty their actual status.
We avoid bad news in business and finance, too. Studies show that a majority of investors become less likely to check their stock portfolio after a market downturn — even if the drop was in stocks they don’t own — to avoid, it would seem, even being near bad news.
The patterns exist in the workplace as well. Employees charged with delivering bad news spend more time trying to minimize or explain away the perceived bad than working to find an insight, remedy, or opportunity in it. Indeed, most employees in most organizations choose not to share bad news at all unless required to do so, the assumption being that bad things happen to those who deliver bad news. Yet, what we label bad news — the unexpected, the errors, failed experiments, in short, anything that first appears the opposite of good — will forever be part of the mix, especially in uncertain times. The sooner we embrace that truth, the sooner we can leverage bad news into better.
How to see opportunity in “bad” news
Bad news isn’t actually bad until we do two things: label it that way and treat it as final. If we see it simply as news, or if we see it as a new beginning in an unending series of new beginnings, so-called bad news quickly becomes something altogether different. Supposed bad news is more accurately a siren call to bring back to our play book openness — to new information, to revised assumptions, to better ways. In its absence, we risk complacency. People, organizations and most of all leaders, need that harbinger we too quickly label a threat.
In truth, bad news is a key way leaders stay fresh and relevant. It’s also ripe ground to foster cultures of leadership. Leadership isn’t the falsely heroic job of one ever-ready, ever-right person we’re repeatedly taught it to be. At its best, leadership is cultural.
Breaking bad to spark innovation
A leader has two key jobs: to facilitate an environment in which everyone can lead, and to encourage, enable, and incentivize everyone to just that. And while counterintuitive, one of the most opportune paths for doing both lies in what we too quickly triage and treat as bad news. That bad, or more accurately, that new and catalytic news, provides the seeds of the very thing leaders and their teams seek: Innovation. Resiliency. Competitive edge.
Hesitant as we often are to embrace the bad, it’s remarkable how quickly bad news can be reoriented to become the agent of better. Author of The Culture Playbook, Dan Coyle, provides a great example. Noted for using icebreakers at the start of his talks, one repeated icebreaker Coyle employs is asking audience members to turn to a neighbor and share an embarrassing or vulnerable personal story – stories we hide for their assumed bad news content. Here’s how Coyle says the exercise flips the bad into something powerful.
“Every icebreaker begins with terror and avoidance,” Coyle said. “And then when people take the leap, things shift. The room comes alive. When they are done well, people don’t merely tolerate the experience,” Coyle says, “they are lit up by it. Why? Because the moment of shared vulnerability creates a profound burst of connection and trust.” Bad news becomes something more, something better something good.
Leadership. Culture building. Innovation. Advancement. The ability to thrive. All of it involves more than victories, more than good news. The sooner we break the ice on the idea that we can avoid or ignore the bad, the quicker we move to building cultures of leadership better positioned to bring the good we seek.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”