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Bad News Does NOT Get Better with Time

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

Man getting water in the face.  Bad news does NOT get better with time

Ten or so years ago, a colleague on the events team was researching partnering opportunities and came across a fledgling event known as Tough Mudder. There were no opportunities to partner but my colleague, knowing of my interest in unique athletic events, passed the mud run info along. Amidst the descriptions of the various obstacles was a note about a group of people that ran the course with weighted rucks (backpacks). Having grown tired of traditional running events I was intrigued. I began to research both Tough Mudder and a start-up rucksack company called GORUCK that is owned by a former Green Beret. The prerequisite to join the ruck group at Tough Mudder was to undertake a 12-hour “Challenge” event led, at the time, by the company’s owner, Jason McCarthy. The “Challenge” activities were a complete mystery beyond the limited description of being based on team-building techniques utilized by special forces. It sounds trite, but the 12+ hours of grueling, sweaty, exhausting, wet, muddy, funny and trying activity were life-changing. I had no idea that this one experience would set me on a completely different path that would involve adventure, deep and abiding friendships and a totally new perspective on what I can accomplish and my understanding of what my organization could accomplish. Somewhere amongst the many lessons learned on that first night, Jason tossed out a truth that has stuck with me, “bad news does not get better with time.” Since my introduction to this truth, I have seen time and again how a failure to act promptly in the face of bad news results not only in a more difficult situation but also adds greater stress and anxiety, as well as extending, sometimes dramatically, the time between the bad news and getting a solution.

My experience is that most people tend to wait until the last possible moment to deal with bad news. Whether terminating an employee, telling the Board about a fiscal shortfall, dealing with the loss of a major donor or coping with the departure of a key employee, bad news that is either received or delivered is dealt with by putting off action until circumstances dictate. Waiting feels like it provides room for resolution, an opportunity to fully grasp the information and a means for lessening pain and discomfort. The truth is that waiting does not improve the bad news, extends the anxiety and distress and delays the formulation and execution of a solution to the issue. For instance, I may be saddened to learn of the departure of a key employee, but the sooner a strategy is developed and executed, the quicker the organization can begin its recovery. An immediate reaction also may minimize the amount of time that the nonprofit is missing essential skill sets. Likewise, getting to the Board of Directors quickly with information pertaining to a fiscal shortfall allows management to control the narrative, opens up an opportunity for the Board to provide a solution (i.e., my buddy Terry would happily cover this shortfall) and may allow the nonprofit to be fiscally proactive before critical issues appear or drastic measures are required. Waiting six months to let the BOD know the organization is in fiscal distress and that you will be laying off half the staff is a complete disaster, especially if there may have been a solution if you had kept the BOD up to date when you knew the bad news.

Every management team needs to embrace bad news discipline. The tenets of this discipline are:

  1. Open and honest communication among team members. I try to foster open dialogue by continuously reminding people that our team discussions are like science experiments whereby we attempt to leave emotion at the door so that we can question, analyze, debate, brainstorm, and deconstruct without worrying about blame, incriminations and so forth. This skill may take some time to manifest but once developed it is a powerful tool for progress in the organization.

  2. “Speed Kills” James Carville’s famous line during the 1992 Presidential campaign is just as accurate now as it was then. Getting accurate information as quickly as possible improves the odds of success and increases the amount of time you have to prepare for a storm of bad news. For this tenet to work, there must be an enunciated expectation from the CEO that management personnel will share good news and bad news as soon as possible with the entire management team. Second, the CEO must actively model this behavior with the understanding that the management team will follow her/his lead.

  3. “Work the Problem” NASA’s Gene Kranz is most famous for making use of this phrase. Work the problem is a reminder to personnel to focus on finding a solution. Kranz's management philosophy is summarized in a 2014 article in Fast Company entitled, "Problem-Solving Lessons from NASA". “When it comes to solving important problems, too often we go with our intuition, and as Kranz admonished, that only makes things worse. Real competence involves doing things thoughtfully and mindfully, rather than by hope, intuition, or guesswork.” Kranz developed the following procedure (that is still in use today) to deal with the challenges of bad news, “Leaders must “work the problem” through proper and thorough procedures. Specifically, they should: 1. Define the problem 2. Determine goals/objectives 3. Generate an array of alternative solutions 4. Evaluate the possible consequences of each solution 5. Use this analysis to choose one or more courses of action 6. Plan the implementation 7. Implement with full commitment 8. Adapt as needed based on incoming data.”

Bad news is bad news. All people and organizations face it at some point. How you and your organization react to that news has a significant impact on success or failure. Robust processes for problem-solving, coupled with communication and teamwork can change bad news from disaster to opportunity or prevent a catastrophic result. The immutable truth through all of this though is that bad news does not get better with time. #GORUCK #Kranz #NASA #badnews #ql3strategies #nonprofit #leadership

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