How to Ensure People Tell You Bad News

Last Updated Aug 1, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

You've heard the saying that bad news travels like wildfire, and good news travels slow? Not true, according to a new study, which suggests that if managers want to know what's really going on in the ranks-including what's going wrong-they're going to have to be pretty direct about the way they inquire.

Julia Minson and Maurice Schweitzer, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Nicole Ruedy, of the University of Washington asked 208 people to pretend they were owners of an iPod that they wanted to sell. They were given a partner-unbeknownst to them, this person was actually a researcher-with whom they were to negotiate the price. The seller was told they would receive five percent of the final selling price. They were also told that the iPod was in good working condition and looked fine, but on two occasions had frozen, wiping out all the music on it. The "buyer" asked questions such as "What can you tell me about it?", "There aren't any problems with it, right?" and "What problems have you had with it?" Here are the results:

  • Honesty has to be earned. The researchers say that in a work setting, managers who ask general questions "How are things going" are least likely to get honest answers. In the iPod scenario, only 10% of the buyers who asked "What can you tell me about it" found out that the iPod had frozen.
  • Middle-of-the-road questions, such as "You're not having any trouble here, are you?" do a decent, but not great, job in turning up negative information. Only 60% of people who asked "There aren't any problems with it, right?" found out that indeed there had been problems.
  • It's best to assume there are problems, but even that doesn't provide a guarantee that folks will be forthcoming. People who asked, point-blank, "What problems have you had with [the iPod]," found out about the technical trouble 87% of the time.
  • People seem to appreciate being pushed into honesty. When asked how satisfied they were with the negotiating session, the test subjects-the sellers, who were often deceptive-were significantly more satisfied with the negotiations if the alleged buyer asked them flat-out what problems they'd had with the iPod. So your employees may very well prefer to be asked, "What problems are you having?" rather than "How's it going?"
Are employees who say everything is 'fine,' even when it isn't, deceptive? Or are they just hoping things will turn around before you find out?

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Image courtesy flickr user Robbie Howell
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.