Many management handbooks and websites recommend the so-called ‘bad news sandwich’ strategy.
News-givers should hand out some good news first, then the bad, then finish off with the good.
According to recent psychological research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, though, this is a selfish strategy:
“Our findings suggest that the primary beneficiary of the bad news sandwich is news-givers, not news-recipients.
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.” (Legg & Sweeny, 2013).
In fact, a survey conducted for this research revealed that the vast majority of people prefer to receive the bad news first.
It’s the news-givers themselves who prefer to start off with the good news, the study also finds.
“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.
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 for a moment how they want to hear the news when they are the patients, students, and spouses, respectively.
News-givers attempt to delay the unpleasant experience of giving bad news by leading with good news while recipients grow anxious knowing that the bad news is yet to come.
This tension can erode communication and result in poor outcomes for both news-recipients and news-givers.” (Legg & Sweeny, 2013).
Worse, the bad news sandwich may be counter-productive.
While it may make people less defensive, hiding the bad news can make them less likely to change.
The bad news — which needs to be acted on and should motivate change — can get swamped by the good news and leave the recipient confused.
That said, it will depend on the exact circumstances.
The study’s lead author, Angela Legg, explained:
“It’s so complicated. It’s important to fit the delivery to the outcome goal.
If you’re a physician delivering a diagnosis and prognosis that are severe, where there is nothing the patient can do, tell them the bad news first and use positive information to help them accept it.
If there are things a patient can do, give them the bad news last and tell them what they can do to get better.”
Image credit: Daniel Foster