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Why It’s Important to Communicate Bad News

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Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock.com

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, it’s going to be a rough ride leaving Denver.”

Those were the first words I heard from the pilot as I buckled my seat belt to fly home after a business trip to Boulder, Colorado. From my window seat, I could see the ominous sky trying to clamp down against the backdrop of June’s snowcapped Rocky Mountains. I enjoyed the calm view from the tarmac, the sun still fighting to peek through the late afternoon clouds.

Ready to crack the spine on a book once we were above the clouds, I took in the view as we ascended. The late afternoon quickly turned to early evening, and I forgot about the captain’s pre-takeoff warning.

Then it started. About 10 minutes into the flight, that rough ride the pilot promised began. Despite the sunny skies, the plane shook and rattled with an unsettling intensity. My adrenaline started to surge as the muscles in my body tightened. And then I remembered the captain said we were going to experience turbulence. As soon as I recalled his warning, I cracked the spine on my book and began reading, the bumpiness a mere reminder I was on a plane.

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, we are about 390 miles from DCA, above Appleton, Wisconsin. There is some bad weather in D.C., so we are going to circle here for 20 minutes.”

After one rotation the captain announced we were cleared to head straight to D.C.

Waiting at baggage claim, I reflected on the trip, particularly focused on how insignificant the rough ride had been and that I was utterly unbothered at the in-flight delay. Why was that? Two things: clear, timely communication and straightforward, non-sugar-coated expectations.

It all made me wonder what lessons there are in this for government leaders. Here’s what stands out for me:

Be straight and timely in communication and don’t sugar coat things. We all know this, and yet at times, we still seem to avoid delivering or sharing unpleasant news. I’m sure the pilot wasn’t thrilled to tell his passengers they were in for a bumpy ride. And once we hit the turbulence my nerves flared only momentarily as I remembered the pilot told us to expect it. How often does unpleasant news remain unshared only to have people experience the issue anyway and only made worse because someone knew in advance about it but didn’t bother to let people know it was going to happen?

Share even if there is nothing a person can do about the issue. I often hear leaders say they don’t communicate about certain things because they don’t think their teams or organizations need to know. Certainly there is information that is necessarily kept confidential or close-held, but more often than not, it seems leaders don’t think their organizations will benefit from the information if it isn’t a decision, or doesn’t require action or have a significant material impact. The problem with this mind-set is that as human beings we are wired to want to know what’s going on. The absence of valid information about what’s going on can result in assumptions or gossip or the rumor mill running rampant—or people being scared. Damage control in the wake of inaccurate stories is time-consuming at best.

So the next time your team or organization is headed for a rough ride or may be in a holding pattern, tell them. It won’t lessen the bumps or prevent the time spent circling, but it will smooth the ride.

(Image via Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock.com)

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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