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All jobs require us at some point to deliver bad news—whether it be a minor revelation such as a recruiter telling a prospective employee that there’s no wiggle-room in salary, or something major, like when a manager must fire an employee. We dread such discussions even when the revelations aren’t at all our fault. It turns out that our aversion is for good reason. Our research shows that people are prone to derogating those who tell them things they don’t want to hear—we shoot the messenger.
For example, in one of our experiments, participants were eligible to win $2 in a simple game of chance. A researcher drew a slip of paper from a hat which indicated whether the participant would win $2 or not, and a separate person designated as the messenger conveyed the result to the participant (i.e., whether they had won the $2). Next, participants rated how much they liked or disliked the messenger. Those who received the bad news disliked the messenger much more than did those who had won – despite the fact that the messenger was innocent, in the sense that she had no control over whether the participant won the $2, and this lack of control was completely transparent to the participant.
In another experiment, participants imagined that they were waiting to board a flight and receive an announcement from the gate agent. For half of participants, the gate agent informed them of good news, that their flight was going to board on time; the other half learned from the gate agent of bad news, that their flight was delayed by two hours. Relative to those who received good news, participants who received bad news expressed dislike for the gate agent (despite the fact that the gate agent had no control over the flight delay).
You might wonder whether this effect is simply what psychologists refer to as a “halo” effect: receiving bad news puts you in a bad mood, and you take this out on anyone you encounter. Further experiments suggested this was not the case: the dislike is directed specifically towards the messenger, while in contrast, recipients do not disparage those who are merely present when bad news is conveyed (but aren’t the actual messenger).
What explains this irrationality? People have an inherent and powerful need to understand and make sense of events that happen to them. Sense-making — making connections among things, events, and relationships — is a central psychological activity. We have a particularly strong drive to make sense of things that are unexpected, and things that are negative—for example, a sudden death; a negative performance review; a less-than rosy prognosis. Once the desire to “sense-make” is activated, people fulfill the desire by readily generating explanations, or ostensible causes, for outcomes. A key part of generating an explanation for an event is assignment of blame.
In another of our experiments, participants imagined receiving news from a doctor – news that was either good (that a skin biopsy tested negative), or bad (that the biopsy revealed cancer). Participants rated their like or dislike of the physician and sure enough, those who imagined receiving bad news liked the doctor significantly less than those who received good news. But we also asked people whether they thought the physician was hoping for the best for them, or whether the physician was hoping for the worst (that is, hoping that the biopsy tested positive). What we found surprised us: when people receive bad news, they thought that the doctor had more malevolent motives. They were more likely to say that the doctor was hoping that they had cancer.
Can the messenger be saved?
Our findings imply a kind of “double whammy” for those delivering and receiving bad news. First, those given the difficult but important task of breaking bad news are deemed unlikeable, a stressor unto itself. And second, because people are loath to accept advice from those they dislike, recipients may be disinclined to recognize messengers as a resource. Especially when the messenger is integral to the solution, as is often the case in medical contexts, ‘shooting the messenger’ may impede people from taking steps to make their own futures brighter.
The bad news is that there’s not much that can be done to change the deeply ingrained tendency to shoot the messenger. Interventions to warn recipients of this tendency so as to prevent them from making unwarrantedly harsh judgments of their messengers are unlikely to be fruitful. And clearly avoiding breaking bad news altogether is also unacceptable, for it is often the first step toward a remedy.
Instead, our research suggests that messengers can take measures to avoid the likability penalty through the way they convey bad news. Specifically, we have found that recipients are less likely to dislike bad news messengers when those messengers explicitly convey the benevolence of their motives—for example, by prefacing bad news with a statement such as: “I’m really hoping for the best for you.” Relatedly, in research with Alison Wood Brooks and Jaewon Yoon, we have been finding that prefacing negative feedback with a piece of positive feedback leads employees to take that negative feedback more seriously, and be less likely to dislike the feedback-giver.
Would-be messengers might also consider, where possible, delegating the task of breaking bad news to someone else. Indeed, this may be part of the logic for hiring an HR consultancy to do firing – a profession popularized in several Hollywood films, whether it be to glamorize (Up in the Air), or to satirize (Office Space).