Reframing Bad News to Inspire the Team

A leader’s job is to inspire their team. This is easy when things are going well. A good leader can keep morale up even when there’s bad news. But a great leader can find a way to use the bad news itself as inspiration.

I remember two years ago working at a financial services firm in an innovation group. John was the leader of the group. He started out the weekly team meeting by saying, “We got some news over the weekend. We redid our projections for the project launch and instead of the $50 million that Tony projected, we are only going to make $5 million in the first year.”

The average person would have seen this as bad news — $5 million is a lot less than $50 million. However, John continues, “But this is actually good news. $50 million was a moonshot number. There was a small chance that we could make $50 million. But $5 million — that’s attainable. I’m much happier with a certain $5 million than optimistically saying that we would make $50 million.”

This sounded really good! it sounded good to me and I knew that the $5 million number was just as unreliable as the $50 million one. But our leader did a great job of inspiring the team and lowering expectations when the product was released.

My favorite example of turning bad news into good news comes from my son’s friend Jessica. Eight-year-old Jessica was walking to school with us one day. I asked her what they were doing for vacation.

Jessica told me, “We’re going to Baltimore. It’s a long ride and I get motion sick in the car. But this is good because my mom told me that you only throw up 100 times in the car in your life in your life. So I figure that I may as well get this over with early. Once I get to 100 I won’t get motion sick anymore!”

I was in awe of the mom. She’d reframed throwing up in a car to be a good thing! Just like John at work, she’d taken some bad news and turned it into something to be proud of.