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The hard truth by 'Z': The good news-bad news balance

A little of both goes a long way

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

It has taken me many years to figure out how to communicate with my employees. Shooting the breeze at a company picnic is easy, but it’s harder to level with them about key details of the business, especially the cold, hard facts that can put a damper on anyone’s day.

I’ve found that the trick is to mix good news with bad. I used to dwell on all the positives—the new accounts we signed, the favorable developments in our industry, the expansion of our product line. It was fun to talk about such issues, and my enthusiasm was contagious.

But I would shy away from addressing less rosy aspects of the business. I’d rush to spit out the latest numbers if they were disappointing. I’d gloss over some new regulatory obstacle that was destined to make our lives miserable. And I might not even mention a competitor’s attempts to wrestle away market share.

Letting messages sink in

Eventually, it became clear to me that I was reluctant to alert my employees to the inevitable downturns and dark clouds that periodically drifted over our business. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. What’s more, it seemed smart not to worry my employees with issues that didn’t directly influence their day-to-day jobs.

Then I launched an experiment. I started each staff meeting by handing out a two-column list of the positive and negative matters we had to discuss. I used the + and - symbols as column headings. That way, everyone could see the unvarnished truth.

This worked well. It forced me to think through various items ahead of time and classify them as a “plus” or “minus” for our business. It also helped employees retain everything and put it all in perspective. They treated good news more seriously once it was contrasted with the bad.

Best of all, employees could take away from the meeting a kind of schematic outline of what was going on, without feeling too bogged down in bad news. (I’d always try to balance out the number of entries in both columns.)

Inviting group participation

Now I go one step further in leveling with my team. Rather than just keep them posted on all the bitter defeats along with the sweet victories, I also let them chime in. I create a dialogue where they’re expected to tell me both the good and bad news from the ground up.

At any big gathering of management and/or staff, I distribute my two-column list of agenda items. The recipients know that I’ve done my part, and now it’s their turn: They must each add at least three entries to the + and - column, based on their observations in their jobs.

Now we’re all in it together, exchanging good and bad news routinely. We’re unafraid to admit error. We know that a cut in profits or a loss of talented people is a setback, but at least we can confront such challenges head-on without hiding anything. And that makes everyone less defensive and more open around here.

 “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 20-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $10 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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