I Have Good News and Bad News: Which Would You Like First?

The Bad News Good News 8451918

I was sitting in a performance management meeting recently when I heard the manager say the dreaded words, “I have good news and bad news.” Like many people delivering this paradox of information, he first presented her with the good, in this case an opportunity for succession. He then preceded to discuss a mistake she made that, while important, was correctable.

When the meeting ended, she left with a deflated look—she said “thanks” but it was a struggle. At the same time, the manager was perplexed as to why she wasn’t more excited. Did she not want to progress in her career with the company? Was she so thin-skinned that she could not take a light assessment of her work?

So who was right? On one side we have the employee who felt the happy news was overshadowed by the critique. On the other side is the manager who was trying to easy her into the conversation. According to multiple studies, 80% of people “prefer to begin with a loss or negative outcome and ultimately end with a gain or positive outcome, rather than the reverse.” This is true in doctor’s offices, classrooms, and in the workplace.

We favor sequences of events that rise rather than fall, that improve rather than deteriorate, that lift us up rather than bring us down.—Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

Ending on a positive note is not an unusual phenomenon. In fact, this tends to be the norm. In another study, participants were asked to evaluate new varieties of Hershey’s chocolate. After each sample, they rated it, were told, “Here is your next chocolate,” and given another sample. This went on five times, though the participants did not know how many chocolates they would be tasting.

The true purpose of the experiment took place prior to the final sample. Half of the participants were told, “Here is your next chocolate.” The other half were told, “Here is your last chocolate.” Those notified that it was their last reported liking the fifth chocolate sample significantly more than those who thought it was their next—64% versus 22%. In addition, they “rated the overall experience as more enjoyable than other participants who thought they were just eating one more chocolate in a series.”

The ways we end communications matter. Whether its a conversation, speech, or presentation, our closing has the power to galvanize or quash enthusiasm. We can build momentum or depress goodwill. We can engage or unengage. Is it more comfortable to start difficult conversation with positivity? Sure, but if being comfortable is your prime motivator, leadership may not be for you.

Don’t sully your good news with the bad. Get the tough portion done first so you can focus on the fun part. It will ultimately be more enjoyable for you and more impactful for your audience.

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