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Bad News? Go First and Go Big

June 16, 2017

It’s a familiar story: a politician is accused of some crime, or worse, a scandal, and they hold the inevitable press conference. But, what do they say?

The answer to that is often the difference between success and failure, winning and losing, a continued career or resigning in disgrace.

Actually, the details of the scandal are less important than the actions of the politician after it breaks. In the last 50 years, we’ve had several presidential scandals. Only one rose to the level of impeachment. Another saw the president resign before he could be impeached. The details, and the political affiliations of the two are immaterial to the concepts of crisis planning. In one case, the president denied everything and famously stated, “I am not a crook!” In the second example, the president initially denied actions, but quickly switched tactics to “I made a mistake.” He publically acknowledged those mistakes and to a large extent took ownership of them.

The first president, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace and faded from public life. The second president, Bill Clinton, managed to weather the storm. He completed his term and went on to a long and very public post-presidential life.

The two examples were not exactly the same, but the reaction from the two men illustrates how to handle bad news. If you must give bad news, make sure that you are the one giving out the bad news.

Our natural tendency is to take the Nixon approach. Maybe if we avoid the topic, or if we make someone else share the bad news first, we’ll survive relatively unscathed. The truth is just the opposite. Not only should you be the bearer of bad news, you should make an effort to almost exaggerate the possible consequences. You don’t want to make up stuff that will never happen, but in your explanation be brutally honest about the possible fallout from the bad news.

The reason this is a good strategy is two-fold. First, by being the bearer of bad news, you get to build credibility. Ask yourself, do you want to trust those you work with? Sounds like a stupid question, but it’s not. We all think we want to trust those around us. Many of us don’t. If someone brings me bad news, a missed deadline, a failed project, I know that person will be willing to tell me the truth. When they bring me good news, I can accept it at face value. I don’t have to wonder if they are simply putting a “spin” on it. By being the bearer of bad news, you also get to control the message. Be honest, of course. Brutally honest. But if you are the one telling the story, you don’t have to worry about others making up lies that might make you look bad.

Own your own story.

The second reason to follow a strategy of sharing bad news and the possible fallout, is that you get to reset expectations. If you give a full accounting of “the worst that can happen,” you have now set expectations. I won’t lie, it sucks to have that conversation with your boss or supervisor or spouse. But, once you’ve shared the worst, you are free to go out and exceed that expectation. Literally anything you deliver that is better than your worst possible scenario is a win. You go from being the person that said the project was in danger to being the girl that put it back on track.

No one goes looking for mistakes. It would be wonderful to never make any. Realistically, we are all going to have to share bad news at some point. It will feel intimidating and scary to be the guy who steps up and shares it. Be that guy. Be that woman. You will find that people will trust you more, and they will value your opinion. And if you lay out the worst, you are freed to overachieve.

When it comes to sharing bad news, go first and go big.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2017 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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