Making Bad News Worse

16 Sep

Naturally, everyone eagerly shares good news. We take pleasure in cheering others up by telling them what they want to hear. Unfortunately, all too often we must tell others exactly what they don’t want to hear. Many feel awkward handling these situations, thus our natural tendency is to avoid the situation or at least deal with it indirectly. This strategy ultimately only serves to exacerbate the situation—a lesson that Yahoo recently learned when thrust into headlines after firing CEO Carol Bartz over the phone during a flight last week.

Yahoo’s attempt to avoid conflict backfired, as a resentful Bartz responded by promptly sending out an email to all employees informing them that she had been fired, as well as the manner in which it was done. Bartz’s blunt communication through this hastily-sent email was received just as poorly.

The foul play from both parties comes from opposite ends of a spectrum. Yahoo Chairman of the Board Roy Bostock used a more indirect form of communication. This strategy only seemed to communicate a lack of respect to Bartz, though. Bartz’s response, however, was guilty of being too direct. The blunt email came across as harsh and antagonistic. Yahoo could’ve benefited from adopting a more direct strategy in order to show confidence and authority, yet still respecting Bartz for the time she devoted to the company. Meanwhile, Bartz should have employed a less direct strategy. In her case it would’ve been advisable to wait until her emotions in the aftermaths of being let go settled and even could’ve had someone proofread her email before sending it out.

Overall, the exchanges left both parties worse for the wear. Communicating negative messages is a precarious business, and the audience and context must be taken into account. Approaching these situations too indirectly disrespects the receiver and makes the communicator seem unsure or lacking in authority. On the other end, approaching it too directly unsettles the receiver and seems insensitive. We should develop a strategy based on context and the receiver. Some situations necessitate directness, while others don’t. Developing a delicate balance is key. How you communicate says just as much as what you communicate.

by Rebecca Kernodle

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One Response to “Making Bad News Worse”

  1. Adam Solomon September 17, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    It always surprises me how managers in positions of power do such illogical things, One would think that the Chairman of the Board for a company as large as Yahoo would have more commonsense than to fire the CEO over the phone. Oh well!

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