Forget the sh*t sandwich. How to deliver bad news.

How should you deliver bad news?

There’s a lot of bad news being shared right now. In Australia we are experiencing various degrees of lockdown across the country, and our political leaders are grappling with how best to share bad news.

New South Wales, for example, started with a relatively light-touch approach that has become more stringent the longer lockdown has lasted.

In Victoria’s latest lockdown, conditions were restrictive from the get go.

While I won’t go into the relative merits of each lockdown, I do want to reflect on the psychology of sharing and receiving bad news. 

Given you will have to be the bearer of bad news at some time or other, what does science tell us about how to best approach it? 

1. Forget the sh*t sandwich

A popular approach to giving bad news, particularly in performance reviews, is to sandwich the negatives between more positive information, a.k.a. the “sh*t sandwich”.

“I really liked how you ran that last project but I think you need to work harder on your presentation skills. All in all I think you are a great team player.”

It’s a popular approach because it makes YOU feel better as the one sharing the criticism. You start on a positive and end on a positive, avoiding any social awkwardness.

The problem is most people are waiting for the “but”, missing any of the good news you want them to hear. This is largely due to “negativity bias”, which means we are wired to pay attention to the negative more than the positive.

You are also confusing the message, diluting the importance of something you see as an opportunity for them to work on.

Instead, I’d frame a performance review discussion as follows:

“Thanks for meeting with me. Today I want to cover off two aspects of your performance, as I see it. First we’ll cover areas I’d like to see some improvement, and second we’ll talk through where you are excelling. Sound good?”

This approach still has enough of the social niceties to warm into the discussion and ends on a high, but deliberately demarcates the “negatives” and “positives”. 

2. Anchor expectations

 There’s a reason many of us seek to “under promise and over deliver” - it’s a form of expectation management. 

Anchoring expectations low means you can come back with good news later. For example, budgeting a project will take 3 weeks but delivering it in two. 

This is infinitely more pleasurable than anchoring high and having to return with bad news. “We’d planned on two weeks but I’m going to need another week.” It’s the double whammy - not only was your estimate off, but you failed to deliver as well!

Anchoring low isn’t without its problems though.

  • First, if you do it all the time to the same people, they’ll start to second guess your ability to estimate accurately. “Jo says it will take 6 months but she’s brought past projects in for only three so that’s what I’ll be expecting”.
  • Second, if your anchor is unpalatable, you won’t get the work in the first place. For example, quoting a project’s cost as $50,000 knowing the job will only cost $35,000 may mean you don’t get approval at all. Or telling someone a task will take you 2 months to complete instead of the 4 weeks it will actually take may mean they’ll choose someone else.
  • Third, people plan around your anchor, so if it’s too outlandish you might end up annoying them with budgeting or productivity gaps. Delivering a project 2 weeks before you said you would may not be good news for them.

This has been a challenge with lockdowns, particularly in NSW. Restrictions on behaviour (like having to wear masks and stay at home) initially started in a light-touch, advisory way before being progressively strengthened as the rates of infection grew.

With this light-touch anchor point, the news about more stringent restrictions just kept getting worse for people.

In Victoria, the (latest) lockdown set a highly restrictive anchor point on behaviour (e.g. 5 km boundary, only 5 reasons to leave home, only 2 hours exercise a day) which means the news should only get better as more freedom is granted.

3. It’s not the experience that’s the problem

Psychologist, author and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes us having a “remembering and an experiencing self”.

Your experiencing self is the one who is present when an event or procedure takes place. When you go to the dentist, for example, it’s who is in the chair saying “ahhh” and the fact that your teeth are cleaned of plaque.

The remembering self is the one who replays an impression of the experience. It’s what you remember about going to the dentist. How you think you felt about it, whether the drive there felt like a hassle, your impression of the receptionist being nice or not, and whether you recall the procedure being painful or not.

In Kahneman’s work, people undergoing a colonoscopy (without anaesthesia in those days) were asked to rate the experience. Those for whom the tube was left in longer but not moved rated the experience more positively. How can this be?

The experiencing self endured a longer procedure, but the remembering self remembered it being less painful because the end of the procedure was less intrusive. 

Remarkably, extending an experience but having its intensity reduced can improve how people recall the experience. This is the peak-end rule. We remember the moments of peak emotion and the end of an experience.

The biggest takeaway from the remembering vs. experiencing self when it comes to bad news is to focus on how you make them feel. Pay attention to both intensity and how we leave your audience.

If we think back to performance reviews, the criticism you share will likely be the most intense. To support people through this, be direct and assured, but also compassionate. Remember you can use positive framing for bad news. Something like “this is where I see your greatest opportunity for development” will signal your support for them.

The end will also be important. Leaving them with clear examples of where they are doing well means they will have the confidence and reassurance from you to continue to perform.

With lockdowns, it’s not the experience as such, it’s how we mentally process it. The stories we tell ourselves and others. This means that as long as our experiencing self has basic needs taken care of (food, shelter), it’s the remembering self that is central to our wellbeing.


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