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



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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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