Hiding the Truth Makes Bad News Worse, and Other Commandments

A man behind the palm leaves hiding truth or himself

Transparency rules the final commandments for delivering bad news by not hiding truth and addressing surprises and timing.

If you followed my first two posts about the art of delivering bad news, then you know I’ve talked about best practices in the context of “ten commandments” that were thoughtfully written by Robert Bies who is a management professor at Georgetown University’s school of business. I appreciate Bies’ approach because he touches on many themes that were personally relevant to me when I was at the helm at a company with a lot of bad news to deliver.

A Latin writer by the name of Publilius Syrus once said, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” In the spirit of this quote, I would add: But a true captain can navigate choppy waters, keep the crew apprised of a coming storm and reassure them that the boat is sound.

In part one and two of this series, we talked about navigating the rough sea of unwelcome news and the importance of respecting and reassuring your team. So, it’s fitting that we conclude this series with a theme that I’m passionate about, which is transparency. Each of Bies’ commandments that I’ll highlight today is a highly effective behavior for those of you who aspire to infuse honesty and integrity into every leadership decision you make.

Let’s look at the last four commandments and I’ll follow with my thoughts:

 

The Seventh Commandment:
“Thou shalt always put it in writing.”

Record keeping, dashboards and data collection have become the backbone of today’s modern organization. Ninety percent of all the data in the world has been created in the last two years, according to the international organization SINTEF. There’s really no reason why we can’t track and document the causes of our problems when bad news surfaces. Information is power—especially when used with integrity.

 

The Eighth Commandment:
“Thou shalt never hide the facts.”

No matter the motivation, whether it’s fear, pride or a combination of both, hidden facts usually find their way into the public eye. Hiding truth wastes time and resources because outsiders sometime misdiagnose the cause or overestimate the problem’s scope, requiring you to invest energy in correcting what’s not broken. If you choose to conceal the facts, once the truth finally surfaces, you then must calm the waters not only where the stone landed, but also where all of the ripple effects have occurred.

 

The Ninth Commandment:
“Thou shalt never delay.”

Delaying is similar to hiding and equally as damaging. Things won’t improve by waiting. Speed of news delivery is key when costly investments are involved and can double or triple if business-as-usual continues under a veil of delayed information. By swiftly addressing the situation, you get out ahead of it and give those who have to rectify the problem time to execute corrections.

 

Hiding truth wastes time and resources because outsiders sometime misdiagnose the cause or overestimate the problem’s scope, requiring you to invest energy in correcting what’s not broken.

 

The Tenth Commandment:
“Thou shalt never surprise.”
Surprises are for birthdays and celebrations, not poor business results. Unwelcome news from your employees about their underperformance, for example, should never be a surprise. The same holds true for leaders. If your team is caught off guard by major losses in the company’s bottom line, then chances are you haven’t fulfilled your responsibilities to keep your company fully informed up to that point.

Ten commandments for delivering bad news feel like a tall order, but if you evaluate your approach according to the themes I’ve shared: respect, reassurance and transparency, then you can more easily determine how your efforts measure up under those umbrella terms. Ask yourself, “When I share bad news, do I show respect, offer reassurance, and inform promptly without manipulating facts?”

If you can answer these questions affirmatively, then you know you deserve to be at the helm under any conditions—be they tranquil waters or destructive tsunamis.

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