Positive, Proactive, Professional: How Team Leaders Should Face Bad News

You are sitting at your desk when an employees walks up. They look nervous. This can’t be good. As they start to deliver their bad news and a newfound crisis unfolds in front of you, you freeze. How do you react? You want to yell, either at them or at the universe for causing these problems. You want to cry. You want to run out of the office and never return. None of these options are viable or professional.

It’s not easy to sit on the receiving end of bad news, especially as a manager. Here is how you can face bad news gracefully as a leader to help your employees.

What Happens When We Receive Bad News?

Whether your favorite sports team just lost the championship or your car needs expensive repairs, you likely have a physical and emotional reaction to bad news. You can see this in the workplace too.

“Every time we experience or hear about a traumatic event, we go into stress mode,” explains Dr. Susanne Babbel, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery. “We might go numb or have an overactive fear response to the perceived threat. Our physiology is triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.”

These hormones cause reactions like rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms. Cortisol is often described as the hormone that triggers “fight or flight” reactions. Along with these instinctual responses, we also feel disappointment in the results.   

“It's an evolutionary response to maximize our survival—we feel disappointment deeply so we don't make the same mistake again in the future," says Christophe Proulx, a neuroscientist and professor at Laval University in Quebec.

When faced with certain situations, our past experiences affect us so deeply that we try to change our ways to avoid the same pain.


Executives Often Ignore Bad News

When we hear bad news, our “fight or flight” instincts take over. Unfortunately, many leaders lean into their flight instincts. They either deny the problem or choose to ignore it.

Michael Watkins, a CEO transition coach, calls this response the “CEO Syndrome.” He says it’s “the dangerous propensity of some leaders not be able to deal with bad news, and the impact this has on everyone who works for them, and eventually on the health of their organizations.”

Leaders who don’t want to hear bad news surround themselves with people who won’t tell them anything negative. They disregard problems that might have been prevented and only face issues when they become a crisis too serious to ignore.

Journalist Erik Sherman cites the example of Jeffrey Immelt, former CEO at GE, who had such an overconfident and unrealistic view of business operations that even the board of directors had no idea how bad the situation was until Immelt retired. “Too many executives are scared of being seen as ‘negative thinkers’ even though the trait, when controlled, is a marvelous tool for analysis and decision making,” Sherman writes. “Even worse, as the GE story shows, the higher up the in the organization the demand for good news sits, the more deeply problems eat away at a company.”

Good leaders face bad news. They are willing to hear it and will work with their staff members to fix the problem.


6 Ways to Professionally Receive Bad News

Receiving bad news gracefully is a skill. If you work on this skill, then your team members will feel more comfortable bringing up issues before they balloon into major problems. You can also foster greater transparency, honesty and trust in your staff.

Be Careful When Prioritizing Good News

When you hear bad news, the first thing you might want to do is focus on the positive aspects. However, there’s a fine line between optimism and blind ignorance of the problem.

Kishore Sengupta, associate professor at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, studied how leaders and project managers received and processed bad news in the wake of a 20 million euro project failure. His team found that leaders tend to prioritize good news over bad, giving it more attention and weight. Plus, when managers have a lot of information to process, they tend to go with their gut.

While gut feelings shouldn’t be ignored, Sengupta says they can’t replace cold, hard facts. Even taking a simple step like running a tally of positive and negative events can help leaders process bad news objectively and make better decisions.

Turning immediately to the positives can appear condescending or can create a false view of the situation, explains Dr. Ryan Niemiec, education director at the VIA Institute on Character. While you might think you’re trying to put a positive spin on bad news or looking on the bright side, you are actually deflecting. Let the bad news sit in the air for a minute, reflect on it and then focus on taking action and finding solutions.   

Take Time to Sort Facts From Emotions

Emotions run high in the wake of bad news, Suzanne Kane at Psych Central writes. The best thing leaders can do is focus on the facts and try to separate them from emotional reactions. Plus, if the news is breaking, then you might not have all of the facts and are working with limited information. You don’t want to make a bad choice based on emotions that you regret when the rest of the facts come out.

Picture the Worst Case/Best Case Scenario

Psychiatrist Neel Burton, author of “Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception,”

encourages people to use visualization when they receive bad news.

Start with negative visualization: What is the worst case scenario as a result of this news? You might be reprimanded, pulled off the project or even fired, in which case you could struggle for months to find a new job and have to explain your failures to potential employers. This visualization process mentally prepares you for what’s to come, whether the results are good, bad or (most likely) somewhere in the middle.   

Encourage Your Employees to Share Negative Feedback

If you want to get better at receiving negative feedback, give your employees space to bring up problems, concerns and issues.

Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ, surveyed 27,048 executives, managers and employees to see how leaders accept and use employee feedback. The results were staggering. Only 24 percent think their leader always encourages suggestions for improvement; and 25 percent say suggestions or valid complaints never lead to important changes. In other words, employees don’t feel like management notices or wants to act on their bad news.

“If you don’t cultivate the art of collecting sentiments that can be hard to hear, you’ll pay a price,” writes Kirstin Lynde, founder of leadership program provider Catalyze Associates. “You’ll miss out on good ideas, you’ll slow your pace of leadership skill development, and good employees may leave.”

Hearing criticism and learning about problems will teach you how to hear bad news on a small scale. This will prepare you to react professionally when the big news comes.


Dig Deep Into the Work of Your Employees

If you don’t want to become a victim of “CEO Syndrome” then you need to regularly engage with employees.

Leadership coach Marcel Schwantes reports that the most frustrating boss is the “absentee leader,” who gives team members pats on the back and then checks out. These leaders don’t see the problems employees are facing (or choose to ignore them) and won’t provide support or resources to help their teams.

Senior leadership loves absentee leaders because they "don't actively make trouble” and fly under the radar, but this is how executives rarely hear bad news until it is too late. Either employees want to make it seem like everything is fine or middle managers turn a blind eye when there is trouble.

For example, Andre Durand, CEO of Ping Identity, told Inc. columnist Robin Camarote that he realized the importance of senior leadership involvement when his company started looking for investment capital. He thought the organization was functioning and operating at its best, but as investors started asking questions, he realized what was actually going on. Durand learned the importance of receiving and listening to bad news, and still makes a point to thank employees for bringing problems to the surface today. The company operates better and his staff is more engaged because of it.

Know That Your Staff Will Remember Your Actions

This crisis will pass, and your employees will likely forget the details of the problem, but they won’t forget how you responded. “Leaders can't just react, they need to be calm and show composure, even under pressure. They need to show consideration, be perceived as thoughtful and taking the facts into account, and then giving measured responses,” leadership consultant Gordon Tredgold writes.

Kira Klaas at Gusto agrees.“Oftentimes your composure when receiving a whammy can dictate how long or severely the effects of the bad news last,” she adds.

If you blame others, yell, act rashly or ignore the problem until it becomes serious, your team members will remember. They will change how they approach you with problems in the future and may even consider leaving the company because of your actions. Strong leaders receive bad news gracefully because they know the future of their department depends on their leadership.

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