How Great Leaders Respond When Someone Gives Them Bad News

Jake Wilder
5 min readAug 16, 2021

Say Thank You

“How could you let this happen?” my boss asked me. It was a fair question. I’d mismanaged the project and it was hopelessly behind schedule. We were going to miss our commitment and lose credibility with the customer. It was embarrassing all around.

Worse, I delayed telling him in the hopes that I’d work out some miracle and fix everything. Unsurprisingly, that miraculous solution never revealed itself and the only option I had left was to come clean. All of which led to my boss yelling for a while and criticizing my work.

It was fair feedback. I’d screwed up. But ultimately, it was the wrong managerial decision.

Few of us like getting bad news. And even fewer like hearing it after someone’s sat on it for a while. When this happens, it’s easy to respond with anger. It’s easy to criticize people for not telling us sooner.

That’s the easy thing to do. And like many easy options, it’s also the wrong one.

Criticizing people when they bring bad news only discourages them from doing it in the future.

Management only works with open communication. You need people to tell you their problems early and often. It’s why I despise the statement, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” It encourages people to sit on their problems. If they could solve it on their own, they would. Further delays only makes things worse and reduce potential solutions. As Colin Powell said,

“Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.”

Throughout your career, many things won’t go according to plan. The only thing worse than having things go wrong is having them continue to go wrong without your knowledge.

Every time someone brings you bad news, your response will influence how they act in the future. Either you’ll encourage them to be more open and honest or you’ll incentivize silence.

First, Say Thank You

The next time someone brings you bad news, try this: say thank you. Take a breath, stay calm and say, “Thank you for letting me know.”

Even if it’s their fault and even if they delayed bringing it up, they still…

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Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.