Why "Bad News" Can Be Better Than You Think

How resilient leaders increase their competitiveness with "bad news"

Posted May 05, 2016

No one likes receiving bad news. But how we respond to the experience of receiving bad news (as opposed to the news itself) can tell us a lot about our resilience as both people and leaders. 

I recently started thinking about resilience and bad news after reading Michelle Gielan's piece at HBR on communicating with teams.  She writes, "Ignoring problems does not make them go away, and the more we sugarcoat reality, the less people believe in our leadership."  

This is spot on.  In fact, I'd take it a step further to add ignoring or minimizing bad news compromises our own sense of leadership and agency. 

Conversely, the resilient leaders I've worked with over the years consistently display a readiness and willingness to experience bad news as an opportunity to not only strengthen their resilience but also increase their competitiveness.

One way resilient leaders grow through bad news is with the perspective that bad news is not always empirically bad.  Frequently, it is news that presents some level of discomfort for us. 

There are some times when our bad news is actually good news to someone else. There are other times when we actually create the ‘bad news’ for ourselves. We step into a new situation we have never tackled before. We create a goal fraught with many, known and unknown challenges. Or we just plain get in our own way.  

But what makes the news feel "bad" is that it throws a barrier in front of us. It appears to get in the way of achieving a goal or desire.  It creates a sense of discomfort that we need to deal with. 

To Gielan's point, often people deal with this discomfort by minimizing it or avoiding it entirely.  She makes a great note in her article about the negative effects when leaders model "Ostrich-cizing" for their teams by ignoring bad news (head stuck in the sand).  

But resilient leaders see bad news for what is very frequently is: a roadblock, a brick wall, an uncomfortable barrier to be overcome, worked around, or tunneled under. It is only the end of the story if they allow it to be.  So they begin to immediately look for options to keep moving forward. 

Twyla Tharp sees it differently. In her book The Creative Habit, she says, “Venturing out of our comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.” This reference to growth suggests that resilient action can have a positive effect just by exercising it. When I think this way, I imagine a muscle called resilience. So, ‘bad news’ is an opportunity to exercise that ‘muscle’ and thus grow stronger in my ability to be resilient.

When we try to think of it this way, bad news can help and even support resilient leadership.

For more insights on cultivating resilient leadership, sign up for Madelyn’s free 52 week email series Resilience Brilliance or join her upcoming course on resilient leader.