Why leaders should face bad news head on

 in the vast majority of organisations, bad news is not necessarily welcomed

Instead of suppressing bad news, senior leadership should use negative information as a learning opportunity.

Bad news dominates newspaper headlines and television bulletins. Why? Because that’s what people are interested in.

Despite the constant lament that watching, reading or listening to the news is upsetting and sad, research shows that we actually prefer bad news, pay more attention to it and remember it more, primarily due to our in-built negativity bias that helps alert us to threats.

Curiously, the same situation does not apply to our workplace – in fact, the opposite happens when it comes to bad news at work. Many of us feel obliged to put a positive spin on things, because in the vast majority of organisations, bad news is not welcome and its messengers are generally “shot”. 

Senior management, in particular, often believes negative information can reflect badly on them. So good news not only travels up the work hierarchy faster than bad news, but it also tends to become more positive on the way up. 

In order to look after our own wellbeing and career interests at work, we tend to consciously or subconsciously disguise bad news or “beautify” it. 

This can often go against the rhetoric that says if you see something wrong in the workplace, then say something. Instead, “don’t look”, “don’t ask” and “don’t tell” are the realities in many organisations. 

Professional Development: Introduction to workplace ethics

Just as paying attention to negative news in the wider world helps our ability to deal with potential personal threats, does bad news at work signal an assumed or actual threat to our wellbeing, self-interest and career advancement? 

If that is the case, things will not improve in a hurry for ethical behaviour. Nor will organisational effectiveness, risk management and success be enhanced.

How can we fulfil our duty to provide accurate information when we are likely to be held accountable if that information is not rosy? How can we identify and report wrongdoing, especially as it is likely that it will not be believed or found credible?

Organisational misconduct falls into the “negative information” category and, as such, it is often hidden and not even discussed in many workplaces. Good news, on the other hand, is embellished, trumpeted, shared and celebrated.

We feed each other positive information – meetings are “productive”, ideas are “fantastic”, results “amazing” – because that is what is expected, accepted and rewarded. 

The challenge is how to turn bad news into a safeguard against a threat to the organisation, instead of a threat to our self-interest. Only then can we identify and deal with wrongdoing and make organisations in all sectors more ethical and effective.

Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.

Read next: The importance of ethical culture at work

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November 2016
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