Tell Me Something Bad

Posted on January 31, 2012 by joni

When my son was young, I told him two basic truths that I believed would save us all a lot of grief down the road:

Mom’s don’t like surprises – Specifically, I didn’t want to get a call from school telling me something that I could have heard from him. This also included calls from other adults revealing some bit of information i might not really want to hear. If there was a good chance I was going to learn something unexpected and unfavorable concerning him, I preferred to hear it from him.

Don’t lie – Having been a child myself, I knew that eventually a lie will be revealed and the consequences are greater upon the discovery of the lie than for whatever the lie was about in the first place.

I gave him several examples of each of these two points. I concluded the conversation by telling him that even if he was somewhere he shouldn’t be and had told me that he would be one place when he actually was in a different place, if he did not feel safe and could not get home,, he could call at any time, day or night, and I would happily come get him, no questions asked. He was a little incredulous about this and probed further, asking “Seriously?! You’ll happily come get me at three in the morning?!”

I admitted that while I might not actually be happy, I would get him and whatever conversation we had about the events in question, they would be held the next day in calm tones.

I was true to my word.

I frequently hear manager’s talk about the challenge of working with employees who don’t communicate potential problems and gloss over critical information because they are not comfortable delivering bad news to the boss. No one points out the flaws in ideas or projects until costly mistakes are made.

But if doubts ARE expressed, how do people react? Do other employees assure the manager that the idea is sound? Is the flaw explored or swept aside in the interest if time and peacekeeping?

One of the worst experiences you can have as a manager is when you discover that something bad that you should have known about or might have prevented was not conveyed to you in a timely fashion. You can’t be everywhere and know everything – but getting bad news via ambushed creates a dreadful sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Not only can it rock your world; it makes you wonder ‘what else don’t I know?”

There are many reasons people don’t tell you things you need to know, but there are some thing you can do to encourage the sharing of bad news:

  • Forget about blame – look for the cause and determine the best way to prevent future occurrences.
  • Keep cool – No one wants to be the reason you freak out so don’t do it. Exercise restraint and remain outwardly calm no matter how you feel inside. Everyone is watching how you handle receiving bad news so show them that you mean it when you say that you “want to hear about problems.”
  • Send the message that you want people to find problems and come up with ways to fix them.
  • Celebrate the successes and solutions. Start creating a workplace culture that values problem solving.

Visit Joni Daniels at