This topic might be considered a sub-topic of various headings contained within the management toolbox. It touches on Leadership, as without this ability one can’t be a leader, it certainly falls into the category of Communication, yet it also requires Emotional Fortitude and an ability to Execute timely and effectively.
Acquiring (or mastering) the ability to deliver undesirable or even bad news is one of the cornerstones of becoming a more competent manager.
Is it an issue?
No sane, well-adjusted person likes to give bad or negative news, that much is true but what has surprised me throughout my professional life is the number of people, particularly in customer-facing roles, that crumble at the thought, or worse, refuse.
One example that comes to mind happened early in my career when, as a newly appointed General Manager, I became responsible for the Customer Service (CS) team. The team consisted of 5 people but the revenue ratio was uneven with one of the team, I’ll call her Diva, being responsible for the main Customer account, amounting to 60% of the company’s revenue. I will not deny that Diva had an extremely close relationship with the customer, one could even postulate that her relationship not only secured the account but had historically helped to grow it. Obviously, with that level of financial importance, this account and therefore, Diva had a great deal of influence over operational priorities. Diva’s life was, generally, one of ascendancy and her infrequent, yet sometimes explosive tantrums were considered a small price to pay for the perceived security of the business.
One day the inevitable happened – a power outage (caused by contractors severing the main electrical feed to the factory) resulted in a complete factory shutdown, machines halted and nothing could be produced, the engineers estimated that it would be at least 12 hours before the electrical feed would be repaired after which the factory would need to go through a thorough equipment assessment. In essence, this meant at least a full day of production would be lost.
This is when it got interesting. I advised each of the CS team to contact their customers and advise them of the situation, with as much detail as possible and providing them with likely scenarios/timelines, allowing them to plan for the delays. Each of them accepted this instruction and duly went off to perform the task except..yes, Diva.
Diva argued that because her customer had Just In Time production plans, it would not be in their best interest to let them know that we would be disrupting those plans. It didn’t take too much effort to argue against the logic of this proposal but Diva was both insistent and steadfast, she used the counter-argument that if all went to best-case scenario, production would still be on time and we could prioritise her customer’s work for the next 3 days. So, this was a clear example of a refusal to accept reality and inform the customer of the situation.
By 5 pm that same day, with no clear indication of whether the original assessment from the engineers still stood, Diva came to me and asked what she should do, it was now highly likely that she would have to start the following day by informing her customer of missed deliveries and delays to their production schedule; here was the second example – Diva was crumbling.
Ultimately, I took over the situation and called one of the senior managers at our customer’s site. I explained that the situation was created not of our volition and that we had a team of external experts working sedulously to resolve it. The manager accepted my explanation and assured me that he would work with us to overcome any production delays but the one overriding issue was the fact that neither he nor his team had been informed as soon as the problem was known. I could have been dishonourable and heaped the blame onto Diva, after all, it was her fault that he was getting this news 9 hours late but that would serve no longer-term purpose. I assured him that Diva made her decision on the basis that, in her opinion, the time lost to outage could be recovered sufficiently quickly to avoid disruption to their deliveries.
So, what happened here?
Diva had built up a reputation based on exaggerated pretence. I will agree that strong customer/supplier relationships are a key factor in keeping the customer “happy” but the strength must be built on trust, honesty and the ability to communicate effectively. Where Diva so catastrophically failed, in terms of her role as the manager of the account, was when she confused the ascendant customer relationship with personal power. When it came to a trial of adversity Diva could not face the prospect of a diminishment of her power amongst her peers, yet having never needed to convey anything but positive news, she first took the powerplay of refusal. Once that power had receded, she did not have the ability to know what, or how, to communicate.
Diva was completely bereft of the knowledge, skill or ability to understand that what was needed was emotional strength and the ability to think calmly in a crisis situation.
The irony in this example is that the reason was genuine and not contrived in any way. It would actually have been quite a simple case of informing and supporting but this individual could not face the consequences.
I communicated my support to the other 4 CS team members, who received no adverse reaction – frustrations, yes but they had approached a difficult situation by informing the customer in an accurate and timely fashion; by providing regular updates these team members had taken control of the narrative and had built confidence with the customer.
The moral, if there is one, is that bad news is better than no news. Waiting for an outcome before communicating a potential crisis ultimately increases the chances of disaster.
(c) Andrew Malson March 2021