Why Bad Leaders Avoid Bad News

A friend of mine shared a story where she brought some important data to light to her C-Suite leaders. She had uncovered some concerning trends and felt compelled to bring up her concerns. However, the response was less than stellar:

“Let’s focus on where we are doing well rather than [focusing on what] we are doing poorly…”

Really? I mean, really?? While I felt for her, this is not an uncommon response. Many leaders (often beholden to shareholders) are driven to keep positive messaging alive at all costs. But is this focus on positive messaging really good for the health of the company?

An argument may be the need to keep employee morale up. Or the issue presented is perceived as unimportant or simply nit-picky. But good leaders don’t avoid bad news. Bad leaders do.

A good leader will always listen to feedback, good or bad. This basic management principle may seem terribly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many high-level leaders I’ve worked with who got where they were by basically doing the opposite.

So what are the reasons for these bad leaders avoiding bad news? There are 4 cognitive biases that help to explain this behavior:

Messenger Bias: We decide on information’s merit based on our perception of who is giving it because we often prefer people who think, look and act like us. Leaders identify less with the unfamiliar messenger and often devalue their message. In addition, research also shows that people generally dislike bearers of bad news.

The Cassandra Complex: Our vision is bounded by our current and preferred reality. When information conflicts with our personal experience, intuition, or imagination, we often can’t effectively envision an alternative scenario, we so simply reject the information given. This is also compounded by Messenger Bias.

Loss Aversion Bias: We cannot bear to lose – financially, face or friends. The pain of loss looms larger than the joy of an equivalent gain. Loss-averse individuals deliberately block out potential bad news and become input deaf. Important signals and warnings get lost in the desire not to lose.

Ostrich Effect Bias: We unconsciously ignore information that is perceived as negative or threatening. Ignoring bad information is easier than the anxiety of receiving distressing information. Once something is known, we can’t ‘unknow’ it. If I pretend it won’t happen, maybe it won’t. If I only look for counter-signals that confirm my wishful thinking about the future, I will feel much better, more comfortable, and more reassured about the future. After all, it may not happen.

All too often, managers, executives, and HR professionals decide to let a problem linger. They just don’t take the time to deal with it, or, they find some way to avoid it entirely. But good leaders listen to bad news because they know it’s a critically important part of their job. Bad leaders try to avoid dealing with bad news at all costs. You don’t ever want to be that guy.

Andrea Olson
Andrea Olsen

About the Author

Andrea Olson is a speaker, author, applied behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers and No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing.

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