#272 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 4          April 1997

Dealing With Bad News
by J. Mitchell Perry, Ed.D.

Dr. Perry, an organizational psychologist, is president of JM Perry Corporation in Palo Alto, California (phone 800-358-2082, email info@jmperry.com, www.jmperry.com/).  He has written over 50 articles on management, leadership and team performance, and is co-author of The Road to Optimism—Change Your Language…Change Your Life (Manfit Press, San Ramon, CA, 1997).

A friend of mine had just completed a relaxing supper with friends and family from out of town.  They were in the mountains for the weekend and decided to follow the meal with a casual stroll under a canopy of stars rarely seen from cities.  As the group walked, my friend silently hoped that mother nature or some Supreme Being would see fit to bless them with a shooting star.  He had them stop and look up, then walk, then wait again, and so on.  He hoped for a dazzling bright one, but it never came.  Although he knew there were dozens of shooting stars each evening, he felt there was a lesson to be learned.  This lesson was to feel the loss or disappointment even when a win was in sight and to know that this will happen again—to be prepared to smile, stay positive, and walk back to the house for a nice, hot, after-dinner coffee.  From this mini-disappointment he learned an insightful lesson about being denied what he was expecting and how to handle the mental and emotional feelings.

This article will provide ammunition to protect you during the inevitable tough times.  I’ll present several situations where something went wrong or the worst seemed to happen.  Is there still room for optimism and a forward-thinking attitude?  You bet there is.  Let's take a look.

The Movie "Jaws"

Steven Spielberg, in the filming of “Jaws,” said that the mechanical shark kept breaking down.  Scenes were cut short or postponed as mechanics hurriedly attempted to repair the vital movie prop.  Unfortunately it continued to have problems.  Being on a tight filming schedule, they had to rewrite portions of the script and keep shooting without the shark.

The negative response:  "These lazy support people can’t get it right.  Why is it that whenever we need props and special effects for filming they are never ready.  We won’t be able to depend on their reliability—they don't come through for us.  We'll have to quit filming until we get the shark working properly.  We may never finish this film."

The positive response:  "The mechanical shark will be working again.  Since we have yet to know exactly when, we have a few options.  We can film other scenes that don't require the shark, or we can rethink some of the scenes and use the suspense and the audience's imagination to get the same scary result.  Whatever the case, we'll get it done."

The result:  The malfunctioning shark forced Spielberg to build in suspense with close-up shots, intrigue and mystery.  The result was a super success that earned great profits, largely as a result of having a broken shark.  Most people can vividly recall their reactions, many years after viewing the film, as they watched the scary scenes in the theater while they held their breath, closed their eyes, or pulled a partner close.

"Wirtschaftswunder"

The Germans called it Stunde Null or Zero Hour.  The Allies had won and the Russians were demolishing Berlin.  Hitler was dead in his bunker and payback had begun.  The German nation had hit bottom.  The Allies divided the country (and also Berlin) into French, British, American and Russian sectors run by the respective countries.  The Germans were required to pay staggering war reparations.  The situation was bleak.

The negative response:  "This isn't fair.  One political party comes to power and the leader turns out to be a maniac.  We never agreed to all that he said or did.  It's not our fault.  There was nothing we could do to stop him.  These reparations will kill us.  There is no way we can rebuild with the entire world on our backs."

The positive response:  "There is one place to go, and that is up.  We will produce even without our factories.  We will rebuild even without the male population in the cities.  The war is over and the mistakes are in the past.  Let's focus on peace and progress."

The result:  They called it "Wirtschaftswunder," this industrial miracle that took place in the ten to fifteen years after World War II.  The German people seemed to collectively display the optimistic reaction that led to quick rebuilding.  The investment and the re-tooling were paying off.  Their gross domestic product met, then surpassed that of most industrialized nations.  The German deutschmark is now a cornerstone of world financial markets.

Hemingway’s First Book

For a writer, the news was bad and would get worse.  While living in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, Ernest Hemingway worked diligently on his first book manuscript.  It was during the 1920's and he, a reporter, had decided to write a novel.  He and his wife were poor and barely making it on his salary.  The book would be their ticket to fame and fortune.  Unfortunately, one day he was to meet his wife at a train station and she was to bring him the manuscript.  Then tragedy struck.  There are different versions of what happened, but the result is that the manuscript was lost.  At first, a furious Hemingway blamed everyone, including his wife.  This was in the days when this mishap meant months of reconstruction, rewriting and retyping.

The negative response:  "It's missing.  This is the worst that could ever happen.  I will never be able to recreate this work.  There is no one I can depend on—not even my wife.  It's not fair after all the work I've done.  I'll never get the rewards I deserve."

The positive response:  "It's missing.  This is pretty bad, but there is some hope and there are several options.  I have talent and skill.  If necessary, I can redo the book and maybe even make it better.  I'm sure this has happened to others and they made it through it.  So can I."

The result:  Hemingway went on to write and publish blockbusters including The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man And The Sea.  He also won the Nobel Prize for literature, and is enshrined as an American cultural and literary legend.  And the missing manuscript remained missing.

Win One—Lose Eight

A business consultant spent eighteen months developing a proposal and inching through the interview and approval process.  She weighed her extensive commitment of time and resources against the nine-part package she hoped to win.  The organization was a combined branch of the government and a major research university.  She pressed on and finally received a letter saying that she had won the contract. 

A few weeks later, however, she was sorely disappointed after learning that several other consulting firms had also won the contract.  Since the client could not decide in a timely fashion, the organization divided the contract into pieces, and awarded them piecemeal to several bidders.

The negative response:  "Those sneaky bureaucrats can't be trusted.  This isn't fair.  Now I've lost several months and significant expense dollars.  I also lost eight out of the nine pieces of the contract.  I'll never make any money on it at this rate."

The positive response:  "This is disappointing but I can handle it.  I won one out of the set, and I have already developed most of the materials during the past eighteen months.  This is a good lesson, so I'll remember to check out the details and keep my expectations in line."

The result:  She faithfully performed the services and refrained from angrily telling the administrators how unfair she initially felt the decision had been.  Her program ended up being the only one repeated and contract was signed again for the next five years.

Summary

Dealing with bad news requires an ability to position the trauma in a way in which you can recover.  By being positive—optimistic, even when the news is very bad—will enable you to recover faster.  Times can be tough and situations can be heartbreaking.  We are humans and we come equipped with a wonderful range of senses and emotions.  We may not always understand the meaning or the reasons attached to losing or why we must experience the bad things in life.  What we do know is that our reactions can make losing even worse and the bad news more tragic.  A great response is to use what we can control (our language) and focus on rebounding from the losses and recovering from the bad news with our heads held high and our optimism fully nourished.

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Points to Remember/Things to Do

1.  Your reaction to small losses or disappointments is a clue to how you may react to larger issues.

2.  Explore feelings of loss or disappointment.  It helps to briefly think about them or talk with someone about them.

3.  An optimistic explanatory style interprets difficult events in terms of possibilities and options.

4.  A pessimistic explanatory style describes setbacks with limits, problems, and deficits.

5.  Positive language gears you to consider tangible and realistic ways you can deal with work and life.

6.  Negative language can take heartbreaking situations and make them worse.  Positive language is a better choice.

7.  It’s more likely that your tough case studies will turn into potential-packed options.

8.  Sometimes you lose and sometimes the news is bad, but your reaction is the critical element.

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