Welcoming Bad News from Employees

There is a nice, brief article in the Forethought section of HBR this month about the issue of delivering bad news to bosses. Everyone knows that as a boss it is important to receive bad news. The dynamics of systems where that is not the case have been well documented. The boss reacts badly when bad news is presented, so the direct reports learn very quickly to NOT deliver that news, which means they skirt around the issue or cover it up until they can fix it. Next thing you know, you have Enron.

So bosses are onto this, and will state very explicitly that they want to hear the bad news, that they welcome it and support their employees in delivering it. One problem: employees don’t believe them. According to the authors, the managers often exhibit behaviors that is in direct contradiction to their stated preference. That is, they change the subject when bad news is introduced, or avoid interaction with "the messenger." It seems actions speak much louder than words in this case, because employees will censor themselves when they see this behavior. From the article:

Managers should assume that they are less open to unwelcome messages than they think—and recognize that they may be sending subtle signals that discourage frank input.

The authors’ solution: get better feedback that is specifically about YOU (not a generic employee survey). Of course, how exactly do you get people to deliver to you the "bad news" that you don’t welcome bad news?


  1. 24.03.2008 at 9:04 am

    Great post, as always, Jamie. I’m looking forward to reading that article.
    One thing I’ve learned in my managerial life is that you have to keep in mind that behavior that encourages one employee to give you bad news might discourage another employee from doing the same thing. One of my bigger regrets (professionally speaking) is that I lost one particular employee because she was very upset over certain things I was doing but never told me about it, so I had no way to change the things that were upsetting her.
    Other people in the same department had no problems coming to me when they had questions or concerns, but this one employee honestly believed that she couldn’t give me negative feedback, even when I asked her for it directly. In that case, I didn’t realize that I hadn’t found the right way to garner negative feedback from her until it was too late.
    At least my other staff members since have benefited from what I learned, but I still wish I could have made things better for her in the first place …