Communicating Bad News

At present, the single greatest risk from the Ebola virus is managing communications around its threat, informing citizens in ways that inspire smart behaviors and avoid widespread panic.

Misinformation invites irrational behavior, which in turn invites more misinformation. As cable news network health pundits and other informed sources are pressed to provide facts on things that are still unknown, managing communications about the disease becomes ever more difficult.

During crises, communicators often make the mistake of disguising their uncertainty. The tendency to either suppress or exaggerate the threat level in an authoritative tone misinforms the public, contributes to the confusion and incites panic. The fact is that during uncertain times, communicating a certain amount of vulnerability is expected, even appreciated.

When there is good news to report, we all become good communicators. How we communicate bad news is what separates strong leaders from weak ones. Skillful leaders report bad news in ways that inspire productive behavior, even under duress.

I recently facilitated a retreat with the partnership of a law firm going through change.  The addition of a handful of new partners and expansion into a new market has firm members swirling in white water, struggling to find a way forward. To make matters worse, one senior associate has been put on probation by the management committee. This decision exposes the partners to a potential lawsuit. Since only a handful of the partners were made aware of the decision, many are irate.

Conflicts within partnership groups are, by definition, between ALL partners. All partners must accept responsibility for the issues, as each is complicit in the tacit assent of behaviors and operating principles. This is the duality of agency.


In this case, the partners and management committee are misaligned around:

–        what should and should not be communicated

–        the consistency between words and actions

–        the tone necessary to have messages received in the way they are intended

–        a consistent decision-making process

At the root of all of these factors is a simple lack of trust or capacity to show vulnerability.

Trust can be a misunderstood concept. Trust is not one-dimensional. It is not something you either have or do not have. Trust is multi-dimensional. My wife trusts me, but history suggests that she can rarely count on me to complete everything on her Saturday ‘to do’ list. Therefore, she does not trust me to get everything done when she expects it. She simply manages her own expectations.

Nurtured trust requires working on specific aspects of trust: veracity (Do I trust you are being truthful?), competency (Do I trust you are capable?), history (Do I trust it will happen based on past experience?). These biases, real or imagined, contribute to our capacity to build trust.

Conductor Benjamin Zander, in his iconic TED Talk of June 2008, spoke about the transformational power of listening as a way to build trust and engagement. In an elegantly vulnerable statement he asks, “Who am I being that you are not responding in a way that is satisfying to both of us?”

Good communication begins with clear transmission using the right tone and frequency. It is a skill requiring mindfulness, intentionality and practice. Understanding and improving your communication skills is possibly your most important duty as a leader, and well worth the effort.