It's Going to be a Rough Ride: Why It's Important to Communicate Bad News

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, it’s going to be a rough ride leaving Denver.” Those were the first words I heard from the pilot yesterday as I buckled my seatbelt to fly home after a business trip to Boulder. From my window seat, I could see the ominous sky trying to clamp down against the backdrop of June’s snowcapped Rocky Mountains. I enjoyed the calm view from the tarmac, sun still fighting to keep peeking through the late afternoon clouds. I glimpsed a rainbow in the distance as we were finally cleared for takeoff.

Ready to crack the spine on a book I was reading once we were above the clouds, I took in the view as we ascended. I watched as Denver faded to the West and we began our trip East, back to DC. I watched as the landscape changed from urban to rural and marveled at the crop circles, wondering how and why farmers cultivated the fields with such precision and seeming artistry. The late afternoon quickly turned to early evening, and I forgot about the captain’s pre-takeoff warning.

Then it started. About 10 minutes into the flight, that rough ride the pilot promised, it began. Despite the sunny skies, the plane shook and rattled with an unsettling intensity; I was sitting over the wing and could see the tip of the wing, seeming to fight against the invisible turbulence. My adrenaline started to surge as the muscles in my body tightened.

And then I remembered what I had already forgotten: “folks, this is your captain speaking, it’s going to be a rough ride leaving Denver.” The captain said we were going to experience turbulence. As soon as I recalled his warning, I cracked the spine on my book and began reading, the bumpiness a mere reminder I was on a plane.

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, we are about 390 miles from DCA, above Appleton, Wisconsin. There is some bad weather in DC, so we are going to circle here for 20 minutes.”

The plane seemed to float, circling above downy masses of cottony clouds. The sun was setting and I didn’t mind the delay as I savored the rare opportunity for a 360-degree view of the sunset at 35,000 feet in the air. It was spectacular. After one rotation the captain announced we were cleared to head straight to DC.

Waiting at baggage claim I reflected on the trip, particularly focused on how insignificant the rough ride had been and that I was utterly unbothered at the in-flight delay. Why was that? Two things: clear, timely communication and straight-forward, non-sugar coated expectations.

  • Clear, timely communication. The pilot let us know what was going to happen before it happened (how the flight would be leaving Denver) and then let us know what was happening as soon as it started happening (the 20 minute in-flight circling).
  • Straight-talk to set expectations. The pilot told the passengers in advance that we were in for a bumpy ride. When we first hit the turbulence (and it was bumpy!) I expected some gasps and sighs or other audible signs of fear; I discerned none. The pilot said it would be bumpy, and it was.

It all made me wonder what lessons there are in this for government leaders. While it may be obvious, I’ll specify what stands out for me:

  • Be straight and timely in communication and don’t sugar coat things. We all know this, and yet at times, we still seem to avoid delivering or sharing unpleasant news. I’m sure the pilot wasn’t thrilled to tell his passengers they were in for a bumpy ride. AND, at least for me, once we hit the turbulence my nerves flared only momentarily as I remembered the pilot told us to expect this. How often does unpleasant news remain unshared only to have people experience something anyway, only made worse that someone knew in advance about it but didn’t bother to let people know it was going to happen?
  • Share even if there is nothing a person can do about what’s being shared. I often hear leaders say they don’t communicate about certain things because they don’t think their teams or organizations need to know the information. While certainly there is information that is necessarily kept confidential or close-hold, more often than not it seems leaders don’t think their organizations will benefit from the information if it isn’t a decision, requires action, or has a significant material impact. The problem with this mindset is that as human beings we are wired to want to know what’s going on, and the absence of valid information about what’s going on can result in assumptions or gossip or the rumor mill running rampant (or people being scared). Doing damage control on inaccurate stories is time consuming at best.

So next time you find your team or organization is headed for a rough ride or may be in a holding pattern, tell them. It won’t lessen the bumps or prevent the time spent circling, but it will smooth the virtual ride.