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Perhaps just recently, someone handed you a dish of bad news: your sales team lost a key account, your factory suffered work stoppage, your financials show skyrocketing costs, or your project is hampered by interpersonal conflict. And you are that leader who is expected to fix those problems.
One such leader, an expat for a multinational FMCG firm, once told his direct reports, “You’re free to come to me anytime with problems. Don’t be afraid that I will be angry. Just remember that I have a big appetite for bad news.”
In this article, I will share three principles on having that appetite for bad news without getting indigestion. We will learn how to keep our cool under hot situations, thereby protecting psychological safety and nurturing problem-solving.
I am a chemical engineer with an MBA degree. Today, I run two factories for a well-known beverage conglomerate. While my story springs from the manufacturing world, these three principles can apply for any profession.
One day, I was looking forward to a smooth time: no machine breakdown, no system failure, no crisis. Boring, you say? Boring can be good.
That serenity was shattered when I got a phone call from Ryan, my operations head (not his real name). He said, “Sir Nelson, we have a problem.” And I thinking like “Patay, ano ito?” (“oh no… what’s this?”).
But I kept that sentiment to myself. Instead, I replied calmly, “Okay, what is the problem?” Ryan reported that our stock of lubricating oil will last for only three weeks. After that, we have to stop production.
At that instant, I was having nightmares while still awake. I had these apocalyptic visions of our sales team pressuring us to deliver, our customers screaming at us for not delivering, and senior management demanding my head on a silver platter.
Still, my tone remained even as I probed, “All right, Ryan, help me understand this problem… What is this oil again?… What led to the shortage?… What do you recommend?… Have you considered this or that?”
Now you may recognize this as a real-life example of psychological safety. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson famously defined this as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” I offer this corollary: people feel that they can speak without fear of negative consequences.
People like Ryan.
When he told me about the lubricating oil, his neck was on the line, too. But he felt free to tell me about it without fear of blame or shame.
Many workshops teach psychological safety and PSDM on a macro level. This article focuses on a thin but crucial slice: the way the leader responds to problems can make or break psychological safety, thereby affecting the effectiveness of our PSDM.
Let me pose some diagnostic questions:
- Can your people talk freely about problems?
- Can they count on you to remain calm and constructive?
- Are you known for not shooting the messenger?
If you answered yes to all the questions, then congratulations! You have that appetite for bad news. Here are the three principles I used on myself as I dealt with Ryan and the problem.
The first principle is to reflect: What makes you respond the way you respond?
Suppose that whenever your people brings you bad news, you get rattled, irritated, or panicky. You know you are supposed to respond better, but didn’t. Why is that? One answer is that you have some emotional trigger inside you. The problem is the finger that pulls the trigger. Your poor response is the gunshot that wounds the messenger.
Speaking for myself, I’m a big believer in personal branding. My goal is to be known as a superbly competent leader. Then the lubricating oil problem comes along and my factory will grind to a halt. My goal is threatened. I can’t stand the thought that I will be seen as a grossly incompetent leader. Thus, I can react with panic, anger, or dismay.
Such self-awareness is the first step towards being a leader we want to be. If we know how our goals affects how we respond to problems, we can make the problem work in our favor. I take my negative triggers and flip them into positive mindsets. Going back to my example, if I solve the oil problem well, then I will be even more known as a competent leader.
But reflection is not enough. We do not work by ourselves; we work with other people.
This second principle is to relate. What kind of relationship do we want?
This is a great question for any relationship, such as husband-wife or parent-child. But for this article, I will limit it to the workplace. What kind of a team do we want to lead? What kind of people do we want to report to us? In my case, I want to have a high-performing crew, very motivated to tackle any issues that come along.
When Ryan told me the problem, I was tempted to show how upset I was. But I was thinking, “If I did so, how would it affect our working relationship?” I would be sending a signal: “Don’t spoil my day. I don’t want to hear about problems. Deal with them yourself.”
Imagine had I responded with dismay: “Oh no, what’s the problem this time?”
Or worse, I exploded: “WHAT? ANOTHER PROBLEM? YOU’RE A BUNCH OF IDIOTS!”
If I were to answer Ryan in those ways, what do you think will happen? Chances are, he will think twice before opening up to me. Worse, he will procrastinate until it’s too late, when the problem has become too deep, too big, or too expensive to fix.
But when I responded, “Go ahead, let’s talk about it” that actually empowers him to be open, to think positive, to feel psychologically safe, to be creative in problem-solving. I was sending a signal “Don’t worry about displeasing me or feeling like a failure. You can come to me anytime with any problems. Remember, I have an appetite for bad news.”
When we respond calmly and constructively, we create an environment where we can move forward rather than shooting people down.
The first principle reveals your inner world. The second principle makes you aware of how your response style affects your working relationships. But what about the problem itself?
The last principle is to reframe. What do problems mean to us?
How we view problems shape how we respond, which in turn affects us and our people. If we think of problems as failure, hassle, shame, stress, then of course we will respond poorly and adversely impact our relationships.
But if we view problems as opportunities, then we will be able to respond well and even invite our team to solve the problem in a collaborative, positive, and constructive fashion.
Let’s go back to the lubricating oil problem one last time. We had a problem-solving session where I not only involved Ryan representing operations. I also brought in people from planning, process engineering, quality assurance, and warehousing. The rationale is to have people seeing the problem with fresh eyes or from other perspectives. We looked at the problem without finger-pointing and explored several options.
A why-why analysis showed that the lubricating oil was a special blend imported from Europe. The supplier did not want to import without being sure if we will get the stock or not. He would import only when he received our order; it wasn’t as if we can get it off the shelf from a hardware store. When we placed our order, the global supply chain was bogged down that our factory will run out of this oil before it would arrive.
We improved the process by issuing a blanket PO. In effect, we told the supplier that he can go ahead to import the oil and keep ready stock, with our guarantee that we will buy his oil based on a mutually-agreed schedule.
Meantime, our planner was able to find an alternative supplier. Not only did we strengthen our supply for the regular oil, we have a strong plan B as well. This is valuable for business continuity.
So the next time someone brings us a problem, yes, it may be a cause for alarm. It may even trigger fear or anger. But think of it as an opportunity and respond accordingly.
To summarize, how we respond to bad news is crucial for our organizations. When the situation gets hot, keep cool through these three principles:
- Reflect on why we respond the way we respond.
- Relate with our people in a constructive, empowering manner.
- Reframe each problem as an opportunity.
Master these principles and we will be recognized for turning bad news into good news.
Now that’s great news.
About the Writer
Nelson T. Dy is an author, speaker, trainer, and coach. He has twelve published books to date, including one that won the 2012 Gintong Aklat award for the inspirational category. His day job is being Assistant Vice President running two packaging factories for a well-known beverage conglomerate. He is also among the Top 100 Filipinos to follow on Linkedin for 2021.