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Career advice and job search strategies for the modern careerist

How to Deliver Bad News Well

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Harry Reid

AP Photo/Harry Hamburg

What can we learn from the announcement of the unemployment number last Friday? Not the number itself, of course: the 12 million or so “officially” unemployed people in the country are quite beside the point (and never mind the discouraged or underemployed workers out there).  What’s really important is how the announcement of the number is handled, and which side wins the talking points, right?

As dismaying and counterproductive as the constant rounds of punch and counterpunch in the political arena may be, they do provide ample lessons for anyone with a vested interest in managing their personal career brand. In many ways, the hoopla surrounding last week’s unemployment number is a textbook study for anyone who’ll have to deliver bad news to a stakeholder—something that most of us will have to face in our careers at some point. Watching how the politicians spanned the divide between expectation and reality, there are definite pointers we can all learn from.

Under promise…

Getting your excuses in early isn’t exactly a new concept, but we saw it working to full effect last week. By Wednesday, thanks to Larry Summers, we all knew two things: that the February jobs report was going to be an absolute stinker, and that the weather was largely to blame. Warning stakeholders of potential bad news ahead of time gives them an opportunity to brace themselves for the shock. Painting a picture that suggests the news may be far worse than what you actually deliver: now that’s crisis management in action. And so effective was Summers’ message—he was talking distortions of 100,000 to 200,000 jobs—that we’re now left wondering just how good it could have been, given that we “only” lost 36,000.

…and over deliver

Now that we were braced for a shock (Would the number hit 10 percent again? Could it be worse? Were we looking at six figure job losses?), anything that could come in under our worst-case expectations would be a bonus. Cue the huge bump on Wall Street when the number emerged and it was revealed that losses weren’t as bad as expected—in fact, they were lower than they have been since 2006.

Sell whatever bad news is left as a positive development

“Today is a big day in America. Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good” – Harry Reid on the Senate floor, last Friday.

Your degree of cognitive dissonance when reading the Senate Majority Leader’s statement last week probably varies according to how generously disposed you feel towards him (and, dare I say, his political views). Leaving politics aside, however, Reid’s statement is a classic—if clumsy—example of how to place a positive spin on what is still a negative piece of news. Consider the following headlines:

“36,000 more jobs lost in February”

“February job losses better than expected”

Guess which one of those Reid was visualizing when making his announcement? However much heat he’s now attracting for his comment, he’s successfully steered the narrative away from what could have been a negative news cycle for his party, and back into the sort of petty political infighting that we’ve all come to know, love and—crucially—forget quickly.

Reframe the argument

Clearly, there are several elements at play when it comes to making bad news more palatable—regardless of whether you’re talking to the entire country, your company’s shareholders, or your boss. While I’m not suggesting that anyone go out to actively manipulate public perception or—worse—your figures, we as a culture are unfortunately transfixed by short-term numbers, regardless of whether or not they’re any use as indicators of long-term progress (and I’ve recently argued on Vault that the squabbling over the meaning of the unemployment number eclipses whatever use it may have). Be that as it may, we don’t get to choose what information our stakeholders—or the media—will seize on as a stick with which to beat our organizations.

As the saying goes, perception is reality. We’re all part of things that don’t live up to expectations from time to time. What separates those things from being minor career setbacks versus major bumps in the road is taking the time to consider how others will perceive the setbacks, and whether there’s anything you can do—within obvious ethical restraints—to control that.

*For the sake of clarity: neither am I suggesting that either of these things happened with the jobs report—either last week’s or in previous months.


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