You Can Deliver Bad News to Your Team Without Crushing Them
Harvard Business Review, Michelle Gielan
March 21, 2016

After a talk I recently gave on positive psychology at a large multinational company, a senior leader told me, “I’m going to use this to fuel my team’s success, so I’ve decided to only talk about good things with them from now on.” “That sounds like a terrible idea,” I said (gently). Ignoring problems does not make them go away, and the more we sugarcoat reality, the less people believe in our leadership. And now I have new research to back that up.

My colleagues and I recently conducted a study that shows how to talk about negative events in a way that buffers your employees from the disempowering effects of negative news while also fueling their ability to solve problems.

Previously, an experiment I conducted with Arianna Huffington and researchers Shawn Achor and Brent Furl showed that exposure to just three minutes of negative news can lead to a 27% higher likelihood of having a bad day. A barrage of negative stories without a discussion of solutions can make us believe that there’s nothing we can do about the situation — that is, that behavior does not affect outcomes. Starting your day that way — for example, by listening to, or watching the morning news — raises the chances of carrying that disempowering mindset with you to work.

Difficult Conversations

In a new follow-up study, we explored how to short-circuit the debilitating effects on a team of a leader describing negative events, such as a potential restructuring or poor sales. In short, we found that pairing the problem immediately with a potential solution dramatically improves creativity and problem solving, but only if it’s the right kind of solution. In this study, 248 participants were first tested on a standard measure of problem solving. For example, one question asked them to list as many uses for a ribbon as they could think of in a specific period of time. Then the participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: in one they were asked to read an article merely focused on a problem, while the other discussed the problem and potential solutions. As an example, one pair of articles looked at shortages at a local food bank. The solution-focused article featured five things you could do to alleviate the problem, including donating food and fundraising. The participants were then given a new battery of problem-solving tasks.

The participants who were presented with solutions carried that positive effect to the new domain — it had a significant impact on participants’ creativity and problem solving ability. Specifically, when people were presented with solutionsthey could actually implement themselves, problem-solving on subsequent unrelated tasks increased by 20%. Reminding the brain that there is a path forward allows you to import that empowered mindset to other challenges. Additionally, being solution-focused made people feel better. Participants reported on average feeling 19% less agitated and 23% less uptight. For a manager leading employees through hard times, this means it is possible to talk about the negatives (such as scarcity of resources) and yet maintain engagement and the ability to solve problems.

There are three ways that managers could use this with their teams:

Don’t “ostrich-cize” your team: Many leaders have ostrich-cized themselves: sticking their heads in the sand in an attempt to preserve happiness, hoping that the negativity in the world will never touch their lives. But this research shows that you can face problems head-on, as seeing solutions increases the belief that your behavior matters — and improves your mood to boot. So instead of hiding from the fact that your team has low engagement scores, or ignoring that one of your sales leaders is undermining the sales process of others in that region, pointing out the problem can be the first step in solving the problem.

Pair up: Often when leaders are faced with a problem, they plan how they are going to present it to their team. Equally important is spending time planning the discussion of the solution. If the solution is not already clear, involve your team in a brainstorming session. You can turn this business challenge into a team building exercise, which could benefit the organization at the same time by highlighting the right path forward. The more you communicate to your employees that their behavior matters and that they have control in solving this issue, the more they will feel empowered to take action. I saw a great example of this when working with a technology lead from Hewlett-Packard in the wake of restructuring. She had her team brainstorm ways they could stay engaged in the midst of uncertainty. They came up with 5/55, which meant devoting five minutes to venting any worries followed by 55 minutes of uninterrupted intense concentration on a project. That team-generated solution gave the group a new common language and increased focus on their work.

Showcase the team’s track record: A feeling of progress begets more progress. Remind your team of how successful they have been in the past when faced with challenges. Show them how far they’ve come as a team by pointing to specific accomplishments. For example, at Adobe there is a wall outside of the cafeteria made of bricks, on which are written the various patents and inventions they’ve created to overcome previous challenges. Getting your employees to move their attention away from all that’s going wrong to all that has gone right in the past will help them feel ready to take meaningful steps forward.