What’s worse than having your team share bad news? Having them not share it. Don’t believe me? Consider the following example:

A plastic-pipe manufacturer in Toronto* decided to roll out a new software system for their facility. When the prospective implementation firm made their pitch, a keen engineer in the room asked what seemed like a fairly common-sense request:
“Can we see the software before we buy it?”

The slow turning of heads and glaring stares from the executive team left no room for misunderstanding: this engineer was, in the minds of the leadership team, completely out of line for having even spoken up. The leadership team was utterly enamoured with the gold-plated promises that the implementation consultants described. From the glossy brochures, it seemed like they had won the lottery.

The keen engineer, ever mindful of the impending disaster, tried valiantly to raise the “red flag” of warning, going so far as to draft a letter to the owner and President of the company, describing what he saw as the gaps in the promises made by the implementation consultants, and predicting that the company would surely be suing the software consultants within 12 months for breach of contract. The engineer was told by his boss that if they didn’t “get on board” with the program and stop “crying wolf”, he would be fired for insubordination. The engineer, against his better judgment but fearing for his paycheque, clammed up and grimly waited for the inevitable.

The engineer’s predictions were a little off: his company didn’t sue the software implementation firm for breach of contract in twelve months; they sued them in nine. The resulting chaos wrought by the disastrous implementation left them in disarray and they lost tremendous market share to their clients in the coming months, and undisclosed amounts of money.

My point? When you shoot the messenger, people are terrified of speaking up. By creating a culture of fear through abusive leadership, managers and executives guarantee that no one has the guts to speak up even if bad decisions might end the company. Abusive leaders inevitably develop an entourage of “Yes Men” who only whisper what they think the leader wants to hear. It’s like the guy on duty watching from the bridge of the Titanic who sees the iceberg coming; he’d rather let the boat crash than get reprimanded for speaking up.

If your people are terrified to give you bad news, or even contradict your viewpoint, you won’t get accurate battlefield data. The result? The strategic decisions you make will be based on the watered-down, sugar coated information that people have filtered for your “benefit”. Not a strong position to fight from.

The cure? Recognize and reward employees for having the guts to speak up, even when they diplomatically contradict your ideas. Thank them for their insights, point out in your response what part of what they’ve said may have merit, and breathe through your nose for five seconds. Even if have to shoot the idea down, kill’em with kindness when you do. People always respect the “Firm but fair” leader, and will feel safe to put their good ideas forward when they know you’ll take a moment to listen sincerely.