Some find that handling bad news as a leader is tricky. Their first thoughts range from figuring out who to blame, how to hide the damage or even just how to make the problem go away. I like to look at it from a different perspective. I want to embrace bad news. Treat it as a learning experience for those involved. And ultimately use it as an opportunity to build trust.
Follow along as I give you a few tips on how to embrace bad news as a leader.
In a technical team, production is our sacred ground. Sure, some treat production as a playground, but if you have any volume of customers in production, it needs to be a place where you take the most care when updating, deploying and sometimes even just querying. So put yourself in the position of the most junior on the team. One day, during the normal course of your job, you accidentally do something destructive that causes impacts to customers.
You are of solid moral character so you do what anyone would do, you tell your leader.
When thinking about how to respond, I want to convey that every mistake, failure or thing that went wrong is a chance to learn. It’s a chance to grow. You don’t grow when things are good, you grow when things are hard and uncomfortable. That’s just how it works so the sooner you delight in struggle, the sooner you get better. I get it though, never struggling would be more comfortable but if you aren’t being tested, you aren’t pushing enough.
As a leader who wants to embrace bad news, the first thing I want to do is put myself in my employee’s shoes. It’s unsettling to deliver this to your leader, and even more unsettling if the leader is not in the right headspace to process what I’m going to tell them. And remember, as the leader, it’s my job to get myself right as soon as my employee comes in. Chances are, things are going to come out of left field, so it’s going to take some level-headed processing to sort through things.
For the tips below, I tend to follow through with some variation of these tips for most bad news situations. It’s not a straight path, but I do find that most of them hold true in most situations.
Tip #1 – Listen
The first thing I will always do is listen. Seems super obvious right? But too often what ends up happening, especially in a technical leadership position, is that people jump to solving. But when I’m listening, and doing so without thinking of a response, I can absorb all of the information I’ll need to understand and help work my employee through what needs to happen next.
Again, when I say listen, I mean truly listen to what they are saying. Don’t interject, don’t attach yourself emotionally to the issue, but just hear what they are telling you.
Tip #2 – Acknowledge
This tip is two-fold.
- Make sure I know what has happened
- Make sure my employee knows that nothing bad is personally going to happen to them and that I’m there to help them work the problem
This tip is super important because it will shape your employee’s perspective and relationship with you as the leader going forward. It’ll also shape the outcome. Jocko Willink has a video out where his acknowledgment is “Good“. What he’s saying in that one word is, “I hear you. Let’s get better”.
Tip #3 – Ask Questions
This is probably the part of embracing bad news as a leader that takes the most time. Depending on the issue, whether technical or personal, I might ask different questions to gain further understanding.
What I think is super important as part of this tip is that I’m not looking to solve the problem for anyone. Too often, leaders are the source of all the answers. That’s just not scalable honestly. Leaders sometimes have the answers. More often than not, if it’s technical, I could solve the problem if I don’t have the answer available. But what good is that? I don’t want to be a leader that is a bottleneck or a gatekeeper.
Tip #4 – Affirm their Plan
Depending on the problem and what the resolution might be, I want to put my stamp on the answer. I will not suggest alternates unless their answer is going to be extremely substandard. The reason is, that I want people to be empowered to go clean their mess up. It’ll build accountability, ownership and pride. Sure, I might offer little suggestions based upon the answers to my questions, but 9 times out of 10, I’m letting them work their plan.
Bottom line, I want people walking out of my office, Slack channel or Zoom call feeling good that they brought this issue to me. And then good about their plan of attack to get back on track.
Tip #5 – Confirm the hole is plugged
When something bad happens, it might not be the right time to discuss how to not do it again. But I’ll generally leave the employee with that action item. Come back and let me know how the hole was plugged. I don’t mind doing the same thing 2 times, but beyond 2 and it’s irresponsible. I want to make sure we know what caused the issue and that we can keep it from happening again.
Tip #6 – Encourage Growth
Now that I understand the problem, the employee has captured the solution and I’m confident the hole will be plugged, I want to encourage growth.
What could have been done differently? What in the moment could they have changed? Could they have been more prepared for the task or more prepared for the failure of that task? So many ways to get better, but I want to reinforce that point with them. Something bad has happened. It’s going to get better shortly. But how do they get better long term?
Tip #7 – Congratulate them for Being Human
I don’t mean that as a joke. We are all humans. We are going to make mistakes. It’s a part of life, employment and essential to growth.
I want the person or people to understand this key point.
Hiding a problem never makes it go away. And if you don’t tell me, I can’t help you
To drive this point home, if appropriate I will share a story about a time I did something similar. It sort of humanizes me as the leader and also shows them the vulnerability that I ask them to show me. Believe me, I’ve made more than my share of goofs. Just because I’m a leader doesn’t mean I haven’t. And honestly, I’m probably a leader to some extent because of the growth I allowed myself to experience in those moments.
So many to list but the big 2 that I think you’ll find as a leader when you embrace bad news.
The first thing is you will be depositing some money into the bank of trust. I wrote about how to build trust a few weeks back and embracing bad news leans into that. Trust takes time to build. But I find that when you treat bad news as something to celebrate and grow from, it’ll build trust faster than almost any other activity you can do for your teams. Knowing that a leader has your back in good times is easy. Everyone is in a great mood when a project kicks off. But when that project goes off the rails, your character will be revealed quickly. And people rally around transparent, authentic and vulnerable leaders.
The second thing this will do for you that I know is powerful. Inevitably the bad news will make its way out. And when you as the leader can speak intelligently about that issue in public, while not throwing anyone under the bus, you’ll increase your standing with your peers and superiors. That’s how it works. You’ll be viewed as a steady hand under pressure. Someone in the know. Also, someone who can be trusted as well.
Leadership is a skill that can be learned. It’s a big skill though and embracing bad news is just a subset of being a leader.
Keep this in mind as you continue to grow as a leader. Be vulnerable. No one is perfect and no one expects you to be perfect. But what people will follow is someone honest, empathetic, selfless and vulnerable (among many other combinations of traits). Please hear this as well, none of those things stand in opposition to results. You can deliver results, and expect and cultivate elite performance while also being the kind of person I listed above. It’s a big job, which is why being a leader is both amazingly rewarding and hard at the same time.
Thanks as always and Happy Building!