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A Manager's Decision: Tell the Good News or the Bad News First?

You're the owner of a business, and you have the unpleasant task of firing an employee or terminating the contract of a supplier.  How do you do this?
  1. Tell them the bad news first? 
  2. Tell them the good news first? 
  3. Or do you construct what is known as a bad news sandwich by telling the recipient good news then the bad news then more good news?
It's complicated
According to researchers at the University of California, Riverside, it's complicated.  The process of giving or getting bad news is difficult for most people, particularly when news-givers feel unsure about how to proceed with the conversation, psychologists Angela M. Legg and Kate Sweeny write in "Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News First? The Nature and Consequences of News Order Preferences."

"The difficulty of delivering bad news has inspired extensive popular media articles that prescribe 'best' practices for giving bad news, but these prescriptions remain largely anecdotal rather than empirically based," said Legg, who completed her Ph.D. in psychology in October, and Sweeny, assistant professor of psychology.

Recipients overwhelmingly want the bad news first
In a series of experiments, the psychologists found that recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear that bad news first, while news-givers prefer to deliver good news first. If news-givers can put themselves in the recipient's shoes, or if they're pushed to consider how to make the recipient feel better, then they might be willing to give news like recipients want them to. Otherwise, a mismatch is almost inevitable.

News-givers who attempt to delay the unpleasant experience of giving bad news by leading with good news cause recipients to grow anxious knowing that bad news is yet to come. This tension can erode communication and result in poor outcomes for both news-recipients and news-givers.

The "Bad News Sandwich" causes the Recipient to be Confused
Legg and Sweeny noted that numerous websites and management handbooks recommend the "bad news sandwich" strategy -- that is, a pattern of good-bad-good delivery of information.

"Our findings suggest that the primary beneficiary of the bad news sandwich is news-givers, not news-recipients," they said. "Although recipients may be pleased to end on a high note, they are unlikely to enjoy anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop during the initial good news."
"If you're a manager, a bad news sandwich may make people feel good, but it might not help them improve their behavior."
Hiding bad news isn't effective if the desire is to change somebody's behavior, said Legg, the paper's lead author.  "If you're a manager, a bad news sandwich may make people feel good, but it might not help them improve their behavior," she added, "as the intended message may get lost and leave the receiver confused."

Fit the delivery to the outcome goal
"Doctors must give good and bad health news to patients, teachers must give good and bad academic news to students, and romantic partners may at times give good and bad relationship news to each other," they wrote. "Our findings suggest that the doctors, teachers and partners in these examples might do a poor job of giving good and bad news because they forget how they want to hear the news when they are the patients, students, and spouses, respectively. And according to this study, recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear that bad news first.
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Story Source:  A. M. Legg, K. Sweeny. Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News First? The Nature and Consequences of News Order Preferences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013

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