Resisting the Bad News

By Kathy Miller on July 8th, 2013

Why do organizations spend so much time and energy discrediting hard messages? We have just completed a culture assessment for an organization which is growing rapidly and needs to meet the challenge of change head-on. The growth they are experiencing requires them to move from a small family-like structure and culture to one that encourages innovation – – one that is ready and able to keep up with a quickly growing customer base exhibiting new demands and desires. Our plan was to work with them to assess the gap (if any) between their current culture and the future culture which inevitably will continue to show the additional demands and desires of their ever-expanding customer base.Our first step was to assess the current culture. Prior to beginning, upper level managers had convinced us the current culture was healthy – – that employees were engaged in their work, respected one another, were familiar with and embraced the goals of the organization, communicated freely between departments, and operated with true “team spirit.” The focus of our assessment was to be an analysis of the “big picture” of the changes needed to support their rapid growth, not an assessment of the health of the organization in its present stage.

However, when we analyzed the data from the assessment, we were almost as surprised as their managers were. The assessment indicated that senior leadership had a very different perception of the present culture from that of the rank and file employee! In fact, the data suggested that the company had some rather serious “organizational health problems” in certain areas. Some remedial action in those areas would be necessary in order to attain an accurate baseline of the company as a healthy organization. The remedies, of course, would precede any changes needed to support their growth plans.

As consultants, we aren’t naive. We didn’t expect this to be good news to senior leaders. But we did believe they would want to address some of the problematic issues in the current culture just as soon as possible. We suggested that the assessment results could be – – should be – – viewed as valuable information, allowing them to address these issues before attempting change efforts which would be doomed by what they didn’tt know. To our surprise, they simply defended against the information! They attempted to explain away the problems as “data collection errors.”

Sad but true, this type of reaction is typical. Very often leaders would rather “not know,” even though their success can be imperiled by lack of information about their vulnerable spots. When they do receive hard-to-hear feedback, they often ignore it until the problem becomes so great it can no longer be dismissed. And then, unfortunately, it may be too late.

So what can consultants do to “soften the blow” of hard messages? We are still trying to figure that out! But we do know one thing for sure: Effective leadership means choosing to put aside defense mechanisms and accepting the information in hard messages for what it is – – a valuable piece of the picture. If they can do that, how much more likely they are to succeed!