One of the oldest and most common business mistakes is shooting the messenger. It's far easier to blame, and
often even severely punish, the messenger than to accept bad news. Historically, messengers bringing bad news have literally been hanged, drowned or shot. In the business world, countless
managers, professionals and other employees have learned the hard way the danger of being the one to confront senior executives with facts--or even opinions--that upset their view of the world.
During the height of the Greek golden era of science in the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras of Samos was one of the most influential figures in mathematics. In Fermat's Enigma
(Walker & Co., 1997), author Simon Singh tells of a student of Pythagoras' who was puzzled by the fact that the square root of two could not be expressed as a fraction of two whole numbers. He had the brazen nerve to suggest to Pythagoras that numbers such as the square root of two might exist in addition to whole numbers and fractions. Pythagoras had defined the universe in terms of rational numbers, and the existence of irrational numbers brought his ideal into question. He couldn't accept that he and the Pythagorean brotherhood, his school of more than 500 followers, could be wrong. He had the young student sentenced to death by drowning.
Today's employees aren't actually hanged, shot or drowned for bringing bad news, but many are punished in other ways. This retribution may be as drastic as calling such
employees whistle-blowers and firing them, or it may involve more subtle ways of labeling them troublemakers and pushing them aside for future promotion consideration or plum assignments.
In many companies, the fear of bringing bad news to (or challenging the ideas of) senior management is so great that information is hidden from the very people who could take
effective action quickly. Several years ago the investigation of a major plane crash revealed that members of the crew foresaw the disaster but were afraid to tell the captain. In a much less
serious but still quite embarrassing incident, the flight attendants on another flight recognized that the plane was landing at the wrong airport, but none felt comfortable enough to go into the
cockpit and tell the pilot,
co-pilot or navigator.
In many companies, product failure information, customer dissatisfaction with services or products, or weaknesses in
comparison to competitors is hidden from senior management until it's far too late to make necessary changes. People are often so afraid of being the bearers of bad news that customers, markets
and profits are lost before the necessary changes are made. One of W. Edwards Deming's most adamant tenets was "Drive Out Fear!" When people are so worried about blame that they hide or fail to
share information, the resulting damage to the organization is usually great.
The primary responsibility for changing this situation lies, of course, with senior management,
but there is much that employees at other levels can do to start changing this unhealthy culture within a company. One lesson I learned early on at Bell Labs was that management is far more
willing to discuss a problem when a solution to the problem is also presented. Most managers deal with numerous problems every day, and hearing about one more is not high on their personal lists
Following these three simple rules when presenting bad news will bring about more favorable reactions:
1. State the facts clearly and honestly with no exaggeration.
2. Estimate the economic impact of the problem. What is the problem costing the company today, and what is the best
estimate of the cost to the company per month if the problem is not corrected?
3. Identify possible solutions. What should be done to correct the problem? What are the costs
associated with the alternate solutions? And, most important, what's your personal recommendation on how the company should solve this problem? This action plan should include the names of the
people who will be involved in the solution, how much of their time it will take and how the solving of the problem will be funded.
This final question is
the secret to successfully bringing bad news to the top without getting shot--and actually accomplishing something. Negative reactions to bad news are often just very human responses to the
feeling that yet another problem is being dumped on one's head. Senior managers often feel they are already overloaded and don't have time for another serious issue. When presented with a
problem, a clear statement of the degree of seriousness of the problem and a plan for solving the problem, they usually react quite differently. They often welcome the news, thank the messengers
for discovering the problem, and--sometimes--even reward them!
About the author
A. Blanton Godfrey
recently became dean of the College of Textiles and the Joseph D. Moore Professor of Textile and Apparel Management Technology at North Carolina State University.
For the past
13 years Godfrey has been chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc. He is the co-editor-in-chief with Joseph M. Juran of the fifth edition of Juran's Quality Handbook. He appreciates all
comments, suggestions or critiques. Godfrey can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .