Don’t Hide Bad News in Times of Crisis

 

By Amy C. Edmondson
May 26, 2020

Hiding bad news is virtually a reflex in most organizations, but thoughtful leaders recognize that speaking up early and truthfully is a vital strategy in a fast-moving crisis.

If sunshine is the best disinfectant, dark, hidden corners are great places to grow something truly horrible. Hiding bad news is virtually a reflex in most organizations, but thoughtful leaders recognize that speaking up early and truthfully is a vital strategy in a fast-moving crisis.

Reputation must be seen as a long-term game. Taking the reputational hit today from the release of bad news is likely to earn — for leaders, organizations and nations alike — dividends in the form of future reputational gain, bringing the benefits that come when internal and external constituents trust what you say and have confidence in your commitment to solving the problems that lie ahead.

Choosing transparency amid any kind of crisis or serious problem requires preparing for what the renowned management thinker Peter Senge calls the “worse before better” effect. It’s an age-old pattern in complex systems. Organizations that get serious about improvement first must encourage people to speak up honestly about the current problems they see. Without that step, success will be illusory at best. Absent data on what’s not working, it’s all but impossible to know what to fix and how to fix it. No data, no progress.

When the bad news starts pouring in — whether reporting crimes in a city, medical errors in a hospital or new patient cases in a pandemic — you’ve jumped over your first hurdle to success. With accurate information, people can turn their attention and skills to the challenges of developing novel solutions to the newly visible problems. Rather than living with false confidence that all is well, leaders and subject-matter experts can get to work on what needs to be done.

Transparency will not happen without psychological safety: a climate in which people can raise questions, concerns and ideas without fear of personal repercussion. After all, who will go out on a limb if that limb is likely to be cut out from under him? This is particularly true in the supercharged atmosphere of a crisis. Absent psychological safety, the higher the stakes of the situation, the greater the risk a person feels she is assuming in speaking up.

In 20 years of studying psychological safety, my colleagues and I have amassed a solid body of evidence that organizations that explicitly value speaking up, and make paths for it, are more effective in dealing with challenges of every kind. A handful of case studies in my 2019 book “The Fearless Organization” tell compelling stories about the kinds of learning and progress set in motion when problems were placed firmly in bright sunlight — and the catastrophes that ensued when they were not.

It takes courage to choose transparency — and wisdom to know that the choice is the right one for achieving the goals that matter to all. The crucial realization is that if you want others to speak up honestly with what they know, see and wonder about, it has to start at the top, and in the light.

Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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