Ignoring bad news How behavioral factors influence us to sugarcoat or avoid negative messages

19 November 2015

Whether and how to report bad news is a constant issue in organizations, with employees agonizing over the consequences. Tanya Ott spoke to Deloitte’s Mark Cotteleer and Timothy Murphy about how a framework—the message, messenger, and masses—can help organizations understand human biases to better communicate negative messages.


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TANYA OTT: This is the Press Room, a Deloitte University Press podcast on the issues and ideas that matter to your business today. I’m Tanya Ott, and today we’re talking about how we handle bad news. It’s something Mark Cotteleer thinks about—a lot.

MARK COTTELEER: I was thinking about that old Toby Keith country song, “Wish I didn’t know now.” The first verse is:

I never ask you where you’re going.
I never asked you where you been.
I never called and checked your story when you stayed out with all your friends.
I never tried to catch you lying.
I didn’t want to know the truth.
I’d rather go on loving blind, girl, than go on without you.

He’s lamenting the fact that he knows what he knows because he’d have rather lived in ignorance than have to break up with his girlfriend or wife.

TANYA OTT: Mark doesn’t just think about how we handle bad news. He and his research partner Tim Murphy study it—in all its forms. Here’s how they start a recent article they published titled Ignoring bad news: How behavioral factors influence us to sugarcoat or distort negative messages.

MARK COTTELEER: Don’t you love my new shirt? Maybe one of the toughest etiquette questions one has to face. Between the sleeves, or lack thereof, and the bright contrasting floral patterns, where does one begin? I could tell the truth, but does he really want to know the answer? And if he does, how will he take the feedback? I hope it’s not too late to return it!

TANYA OTT: I gotta be honest, when I read that one, I went, “Okay, whoever this person is who’s asking and considering whether or not they should answer that question probably has never been married.” Right?

TIM MURPHY: (laughs) You know what? I am married, and I did write that question.

TANYA OTT: You did?! Okay! Because that’s kind of like, “Hey, do I look fat in this?” “No! Oh, no!” So obviously that is a very specific example of one-on-one messaging, how do you deliver a bad message, “no, your shirt is really ugly” or whatever. But you guys are looking at the sort of bigger, organizational issues related to how do you message things. And my first question would be, why are you interested in that? Why is this the thing you wanted to look at?

TIM MURPHY: Well, there’s a few things. One, we just in general like to cover anything that puts our behavioral biases in the forefront. And by that, I mean people try to be analytical, rational, and all things, but we just have so much information in front of us where it’s really hard to do it. And one we just kept seeing crop up when we looked at the research is this idea of bad news, right? That’s something where you want to be rational about it, but like the shirt, you see a lot of emotional pieces come into it. So you can’t be robotic in your response. You wouldn’t say “No. It’s ugly. Get rid of it.” Especially if you care about the person, there are all these other factors that come into it: How do you say it? How will they take the information? Will they listen to my answers? So we just saw so many cool, interesting dynamics to this thing that all of us have to do on almost a semiregular basis, but not many of us are good at, either listening to it or providing it. So we thought, wow, this is just an overarching theme that a lot of people have to deal with, so let’s look into it.

MARK COTTELEER: We’re all confronted on a nearly daily basis about whether and how to report bad news in the organizations in which we serve. We all exist, or most of us exist, within hierarchical organizations where we’ve got to report to those up the chain, and we need to consider the consequences of doing that as individuals and for the organization. And it turns out that we’re susceptible to these kinds of human biases and limitations that influence the way we act, and we feel we ought to be aware of them.

TANYA OTT: So this is basically sort of psychology for the workplace? You’ve developed a framework for thinking about this. You’re looking specifically at the message, and then messenger, and then the masses. Now I want to break that down a little bit. First of all: message. How messages are delivered makes a difference. And the study that you looked at was a group of people who have to deliver bad news pretty regularly: doctors. Tell me about that research study, how it was done, and what it told you guys.

TIM MURPHY: I really like that study because I think that’s where the message is probably more important than anywhere else. I like to say that, in a business context, providing a bad message is important, but we’re talking about life or death or something of that sort when it’s in the medical community. So if we can learn something from them, I think that it’s incredibly powerful elsewhere.

Specifically in that study . . . it was kind of interesting. They actually took third-year med students and ran them through these simulations. And the reason they took third-year med students is they wanted to pick people who have yet to develop their messaging system. So people that will inevitably have to give those messages, but they’re not used to them yet, and they haven’t created these blocking behaviors that do exist. By that, I mean these actions where, essentially, if you really don’t like it, you start giving close-ended questions or maybe even disregarding some information, all to protect yourself from personal stress. So I think these are the people that we can learn from most because they have a lot of the academic background but not a lot of that personal interaction background as far as having to go through these scenarios. It seemed like just a really good group to learn from, and someone we could glean some really good insights from.

TANYA OTT: And what that study was looking at was basically the stress that doctors feel, or would-be doctors feel, when they have to deliver messages, and how that affects how they deliver those messages. What did it find?

TIM MURPHY: It found a few things. First of all, it found that patient cues matter. So how a patient responds to a certain piece of bad news—because this is a full conversation, right, it’s not usually just one sentence, and then it’s done—but how somebody interacts and gives cues can really lead to how I develop and further give that message.

MARK COTTELEER: I’m worried about how you’re going to respond. You respond with some emotion, which increases my stress, and so I respond in a more stressed way, and so on and so forth, and pretty soon we’re not communicating at all.

TIM MURPHY: People find it incredibly taxing to really sit back and confront that emotional side.

MARK COTTELEER: We know that fact-based communications are generally seen to deescalate that stress cycle. So finding a way to move to that fact-based discussion in an environment where stress seems to be escalating can be a clever move.

TANYA OTT: Take that outside the doctor’s office or the hospital. What’s the takeaway for other kinds of companies in terms of what companies need to provide to their employees who maybe have to deliver bad news on a regular basis?

MARK COTTELEER: As a leader, we suggest that people consider the impact on individuals of constantly subjecting them to these kinds of situations.

TIM MURPHY: It could be about giving some feedback in the workplace about behaviors that they need to help coach up on . . .

MARK COTTELEER: We often see it in HR settings.

TIM MURPHY: It could be about terminating employees . . .

MARK COTTELEER: And, you know, we can also see it in customer service settings or in other service settings in which you’re forced to deliver bad news. Think of a poor airline clerk dealing with delayed flights all the time. Burnout is an issue in some roles. These kinds of communications, particularly the stressful ones, can have an impact.

TIM MURPHY: What we see is that in these cases, people really need to be equipped with the tools to talk about any of those specific things. So if it’s about giving bad quarterly reports, you need to give people the tools to really talk about exactly what’s going on. It can’t be where they give a one-result sentence, and then that’s it. There needs to be something more to it, where you have an in-depth understanding. So like the doctor who does better when they can fall back on their training, you need to provide people those same tools in the context of business.

TANYA OTT: One of the other things that you write about is, perhaps you need to give people time off or some sort of sabbatical or job rotation or something, especially if they’re the kind of person that has to deliver bad news regularly?

TIM MURPHY: Yes. That’s a great one because, like the patient example, one of the biggest problems that can come if you aren’t very good at delivering bad messages, or if you have to deliver them all too regularly, is the stress and anxiety that comes from them. And not only is that just awful from a personal position, where you have less job satisfaction and less happiness in the workplace, but it also goes back to those blocking behaviors: The more stress and anxiety that you have from these questions, the more likely that you are to just not provide as good of a message for this bad content. So giving people that ability to refresh, reboot, sabbaticals, what have you, is acknowledging that these are stressful situations, and we’re all human, and we need the opportunity to refresh, reboot.

TANYA OTT: The next part of that matrix that you have is messenger. And the messenger matters.


TANYA OTT: You write about a study conducted in an IT setting. Tell me about that.

TIM MURPHY: The IT study was a great one for this because IT is especially a spot where bad news happens. Nineteen percent of projects fail in an IT setting, and 46 percent have cost or time overruns. It’s not just an isolated incidence; it’s a place where it happens a lot, and hopefully we can learn a lot from it. With this one, people were given scenarios where they were given this project situation and put in the role of project manager. And depending on who it was, the scenario was varied, and it was all randomized. Essentially an internal auditor would assess the project and provide that bad news. But the quality of that auditor or who they were was changed throughout the process. The idea here was that we can now start isolating different factors: credibility of the reporter, what other people are saying. You can also see characteristics of the person who’s in that project management role, and, by isolating any one of those and tweaking one, we can now start seeing certain pieces of it, be it credibility or risk perception or whatever it might be, and start learning a lot about when do people listen to the bad news and when do they react accordingly.

MARK COTTELEER: The messenger is about who’s delivering as opposed to what the message actually is. If I have someone who doesn’t have a reputation for being knowledgeable in a particular area, and they’re giving voice to a concern, we may not listen as effectively. The researchers call this the “deaf effect.” And we need to recognize [that] in order for communication to happen, not only does someone need to speak, but someone else needs to hear.

We also find that duty matters as well. Studies demonstrate that what we call role-prescribed messengers have a tendency to be better heard than someone who’s speaking from a nontraditional position. So if you’re the auditor responsible for looking at the IT deployment project, then your view that the project may be off the rails, off plan, or off budget is more likely to be heard than someone who’s just a worker on the project. What that means to us is that we need to pay attention to how we assign roles for certain projects. We also need to pause and be sure that if or when we’re dismissing an outsider or nontraditional inputs, are we asking ourselves the question: Is it for valid reasons, or are we simply reacting as human beings?

After all, it took a child to declare that the emperor has no clothes in that story by Hans Christian Anderson. Sometimes it is the nontraditional, less credible, non-role-defined individual who does have that information. We have to recognize that, as leaders, we may have a tendency to dismiss that. So we just advise that you stop and check your biases for just a minute in order to verify, do you really want to make that choice, as opposed to just waving it off.

TANYA OTT: The final element is masses. There are a lot of people receiving a message, and how a message is managed to those people can make a difference. You talk about when bad news is sugarcoated. Tell me a little bit about what you mean by that.

MARK COTTELEER: I think this is a really interesting study that we took a look at, and it’s based on the recognition that organizations and hierarchies exist, and that bad news tends to flow upward more slowly than good news, right? In the paper that we wrote, we cite the fact that 70 percent of the individuals that were studied as part of the research reported some recollection of sugarcoating bad news. Interestingly, the conclusion of the research is that, at some level—albeit a low level—it’s not all that bad, and, in some circumstances, can even be good for a little sugarcoating to happen.

TANYA OTT: The quote that stood out for me: “A touch of information distortion can benefit overall organizational performance.” Tell me what you mean by that.

MARK COTTELEER: I often have an exchange with my boss, who may be listening to this podcast, where he asks me how things are going, and I saw “fine.” And “fine” may take on a range of values from “Hey, everything is great,” to “There are some issues, but none that I want to trouble you with.” In an environment in which there’s no sugarcoating, in which there’s a perfect flow of information up the chain, instead of “fine” I might say, “Well, you know this study that we’re working on is falling behind by a week or so. You know we’ll probably catch up, but I don’t know. And that task that we’re working on hasn’t gone as well as we’d like,” and what have you. The sugarcoating we’re talking about, I think, is more about screening out the minor distractions, the minor turbulence that occurs on a day-to-day basis, and instead making a decision about what the critical information is that needs to move up the chain.

TIM MURPHY: Most people hide negative information too much, and that has, correspondingly, a very negative impact. When we constantly hide information, especially when it gets up to a high-level executive decision maker, they might even know that there’s a problem. But there’s the other end of it, right? So I think our knee-jerk reaction is: How do we induce perfect honesty? And we don’t necessarily need that.

MARK COTTELEER: The researchers say about 10 percent sugarcoating is not so bad and may even be healthy under some circumstances. That is a far lower number than the 70 percent who report actually sugarcoating at some time. So in general, the guidance is, we still want to make sure that we’re encouraging the flow up the chain, but we don’t need to engage in a death march toward stamping out all sugarcoating in all cases all the time.

TIM MURPHY: Now here’s the issue. It’s hard to control how much honesty there is, right? To say you can sugarcoat 10 percent of your information isn’t necessarily true—I mean, it is true, but it’s hard to measure and hard to control for. The idea is we don’t need to induce perfect honesty. We just need to be much more honest than we normally are.

TANYA OTT: Yeah, I was looking at that 10 percent and thinking to myself, as someone who manages people and then also reports up, how the heck would I . . . ?

TIM MURPHY: How do you get 10 percent of your information to be distorted?

TANYA OTT: Yeah, exactly! I’m just going to program it like automated tweets. I’m going to give 100 percent accuracy and transparency on this one and not on these others.

TIM MURPHY: Maybe for every 10 sentences you write, you tweak one! (laughs)

TANYA OTT: There you go! You’re hearing it from Tim! Every 10th sentence, juice it up a little bit. Just kidding . . .

Seriously though, Mark Cotteleer and Tim Murphy have a lot more to say about the topic of delivering —and receiving—bad news, including about something researchers call “slack-driven search.”

MARK COTTELEER: You have the opportunity to look down the road a little bit and seek out new opportunities because of your general belief that things are fine, instead of focusing on problematic research or the effort to find solutions to problems that are distracting you. So there’s pretty good documentation to suggest that when we see a lot of problems, we tend to zero in and focus on those, and they simply may not be worth a leader’s time in all respects.

TANYA OTT: Just another argument for a little “artificial sweetening” of the news of the day. For more, check out Mark Cotteleer and Tim Murphy’s article Ignoring bad news: How behavioral factors influence us to sugarcoat or distort negative messages.

I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room, a production of Deloitte University Press. Thanks for listening! If you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss a single episode—and leave us a rating and a comment! You can email us at podcasts@dupress.com, or follow us on Twitter @du_press. We’d love to know what you think.

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