• Leadership Essentials – The Bad News Disease

    The HR Manager was on edge. He was about to present his report

    to the CEO and the senior management team. His research brief

    had been to conduct an analysis of the company’s culture and to

    make recommendations for improvement. He had sweated on this

    for months. After running hours of focus groups and face-to-face

    interviews he was confident in his findings. But he had mixed

    feelings about presenting the report. On the one hand, he was

    confident that if the company acted on the results, it would get

    stronger. On the other hand, the CEO was an intimidating, nononsense

    man. He was known to shoot people down in flames if he

    was not satisfied with the answers to his questions. As he stood in

    front of the room, beads of sweat started to pour from the HR

    Manager’s forehead.

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    The CEO was sitting at the head of the table, surrounded by his

    senior directors. He was a get-straight-to-the-point-I-don’t-have-time

    type of person. The room was silent. The HR manager cleared his

    throat and quickly introduced his first key finding. “My research

    shows that people do not feel empowered to make decisions.” He

    went on for two or three more sentences and then the CEO abruptly

    cut in. He turned to the directors in the room and said, “People feel

    empowered in this company, don’t they?” The senior team quickly

    agreed with the CEO.

    The credibility of the HR Manager’s report had been shot to pieces.

    He was questioned on how he came to his conclusion, but the CEO

    did not accept that his answers represented the true situation. The

    HR Manager continued with his presentation, but he knew that he

    had lost his audience from his first few sentences. The report was

    not mentioned again after that presentation.

    The Bad News Disease

    This CEO has what Daniel Goleman and his co-authors of the book,

    Primal Leadership, refer to as the “CEO Disease.” (Daniel Goleman,

    Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee, Primal Leadership, Harvard

    Business School Press, 2002). The CEO Disease is the information

    vacuum around leaders that buffers them from important information

    on what is happening in the company. In short, the CEO Disease

    sets in when leaders get feedback that filters out the bad news or

    news that is likely to be unpalatable to them.

    I believe that you don’t have to be a CEO to be afflicted by the CEO

    Disease. I have seen supervisors, middle managers, senior

    managers as well as CEOs who demonstrate symptoms of this

    disease. In fact, I have done a laboratory examination and have

    identified the more “common” strain of the CEO Disease to be the

    “Bad News” Disease. The symptoms of the Bad News Disease are

    the same as the CEO Disease – an aversion to bad news and

    negative feedback.

    The Bad News

    Disease is a

    strain of the

    CEO Disease

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    Causes of the Bad News Disease

    One common reason for the Bad New Disease is “power-distance”

    between the manager and his or her team. There is a manager, let’s

    call her Janice (the story is true, but the name has been changed)

    who drives her people by fear. She says that she wants results, not

    excuses. She is impatient, can get very angry, and does not tolerate

    news that might show that the high targets that she has set for her

    team cannot be achieved. So, what happens? Her people are too

    afraid to tell her the truth. They don’t give her valuable feedback that

    would help the team to address the issues. No one has the courage

    to do this, so planning and decisions are made based on partial

    information. This manager’s team will continue to struggle to achieve

    their results – and her people will become more disengaged over


    Another cause of the disease is CEOs, managers or supervisors

    who adopt the position that they know the answers. They are not

    inclined to ask questions, but rather, do the telling. They don’t have

    time to get feedback. It’s all go-go-go for these managers.

    A third cause of The Bad News Disease is created by the “yes man”

    syndrome. This gets worse the higher in the organisation that we go.

    It is at its worst at the CEO level. Those who suffer from this strain of

    Bad News Disease surround themselves with “yes men” who will

    agree with them and protect them from bad news. The CEO

    mentioned at the beginning of this article surrounded himself with

    “yes men.” Lower down in the organisation, the manager will have

    allies, or even worse, “favourites” who filter news before it gets to

    their boss. They do this to “protect” the boss – and to maintain their

    comfortable relationships.

    A fourth cause of Bad News Disease is CEOs, managers and

    supervisors who are not open to feedback on their own

    performance. We are all human, and we all have areas to improve

    in, whether they be listening skills, implementation skills, team

    building skills or a range of other key management and leadership

    skills and attributes. Honest feedback will help us to improve.

    Without feedback, we will spin our wheels and not move forward.

    People are

    afraid to tell

    the truth’and

    the team




    over time

    The “yes



    gets worse as

    we go higher

    up the


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    The impacts of the Bad News Disease

    The ultimate impacts of the Bad News Disease are underperformance

    and poor team morale. We are living in a fast moving

    world. Customer and employee expectations are changing.

    Competitors are trying to grab our market share. We live in a world

    where, more than ever before, we need feedback to help us stay

    ahead as leaders, managers and as companies. This is definitely not

    a good time to catch the Bad News Disease. Nonetheless, this

    disease is widespread and does not seem to be abating.

    How to overcome the Bad News Disease

    The first way to overcome Bad News Disease is to accept that news

    and feedback which is not favourable is important news. Nobody

    wants to hear “bad news”, but to not hear it, analyse it and do

    something about it is to bury our heads in the sand. We can only do

    this without repercussions for so long! Second, look for people who

    have the courage to be “no-men” – the ones who are prepared to

    challenge and ask the hard questions. These are the people who will

    tell it as it is. These are the provocative and “challenging” people on

    your team who might otherwise be considered to be

    “troublemakers.” The news that they deliver, and the questions that

    they ask may not be what you want to hear, but it definitely is what

    you need to hear. Encourage and reward these “no-men” on your

    team. Instead of saying, “How dare you …” say, “Thank you for

    daring to tell me …” Third, at a personal level, find people who have

    the courage to give you one-to-one personal feedback on your own

    style and performance. This can be boosted by calling for honest

    360 degree feedback, and by being open with your team about the

    results – focusing on your areas for improvement. This will send a

    strong signal to your team that you want to foster an open

    communication climate.



    and poor team


    The first

    antidote is to

    accept that


    news is



    ©2010 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 5 of 5

    Your mission for the month is to do a self assessment. What is your

    reaction when people bring you “bad news”? Do you get any? Do

    you encourage it? Do you act on it? The second part of your mission

    is to make sure you have team members whom you can trust to give

    you feedback on your own personal performance. Understand the

    symptoms of the Bad News Disease and you will be on your way to

    becoming an even better supervisor, manager or CEO. Until next


    First published in Business Today, Malaysia, July 2010

    Copyright © 2010 by George Aveling

    Share the knowledge!  Please feel free to share this knowledge. You have

    George Aveling, CEO of TMI, as the owner of the copyright.

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