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Good Leaders Want to Hear the Bad News

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A friend of mine shared a story where she brought some important data to light to her C-Suite leaders. She had uncovered some concerning trends and felt compelled to bring up her concerns. However, the response was less than stellar: “Let’s focus on where we are doing well rather than [focusing on what] we are doing poorly...” management countered. 

While I felt for her, sadly this is not an uncommon response. Many leaders, often those beholden to shareholders, are driven to keep positive messaging alive at all costs. But is this focus on positive messaging really good for the health of the company?

An argument in support of this philosophy may revolve around the desire to keep employee morale up. Or the issue presented is perceived as unimportant or simply nitpicky. Even so, good leaders don’t avoid bad news. Bad leaders do.

A good leader will always listen to feedback, good or bad, then act accordingly. This basic management principle may seem terribly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many high-level leaders I’ve encountered who got where they were despite basically doing the opposite.

So what are the reasons for these bad leaders avoiding bad news? There are four cognitive biases that help to explain this behavior:

Messenger Bias: We decide on information’s merit based on our perception of who is giving it because we often prefer people who think, look and act like us. Leaders identify less with the unfamiliar messenger and often devalue their message. In addition, research also shows that people generally dislike bearers of bad news. 

The Cassandra Complex: Our vision is bounded by our current and preferred reality. When information conflicts with our personal experience, intuition or imagination, we often can’t effectively envision an alternative scenario. so we simply reject the information given. This phenomenon is also compounded by Messenger Bias.

Loss Aversion Bias: Many of us cannot bear to lose – financially, face or friends. The pain of loss looms larger than the joy of an equivalent gain. Loss-averse individuals deliberately block out potential bad news and become input deaf. Important signals and warnings get lost in the desire to avoid losing.

Ostrich Effect Bias: We unconsciously ignore information that is perceived as negative or threatening. Ignoring bad information is easier than the anxiety of receiving distressing information. Once something is known, we can’t ‘unknow’ it. If I pretend it won’t happen, maybe it won’t. If I only look for counter-signals that confirm my wishful thinking about the future, I will feel much better, more comfortable and more reassured about the future. After all, it may not happen.

All too often, managers, executives and HR professionals decide to let a problem linger. They just don’t take the time to deal with it; or they find some way to avoid it entirely. But good leaders listen to bad news because they know it’s a critically important part of their job. Bad news is a fact of life, and can’t be silenced or ignored. 

Bad leaders try to avoid dealing with bad news at all costs. You don’t ever want to be that person.

Andrea Olson is the CEO of Pragmadik. She writes original articles across a spectrum of topics, providing insights into leadership, culture change, organizational engagement, behavioral science and strategic communications.

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