Delivering bad news can be even more stressful and upsetting than receiving it

In the film Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise plays a flourishing but complacent sports agent who unexpectedly gets the sack. The reason for this is that his character suddenly "grew a conscience" and as a result is no longer willing to do what it takes to succeed in the cut-throat business.

The sacking occurs in a restaurant which, he realises, the boss picked for doing the dirty deed because it is much less likely that he will cause a scene in a public place.

It is a good example of a common situation: we are either on the receiving end of bad news at some time in our lives or else we may have to deliver some ourselves.

Managers contend daily with the issue of how to give less-than-great news, yet the training on this predicament is extremely variable. There is no real consensus on how to give bad news well. During periods of contraction or belt-tightening, the key psychological implication for managers is that they are going to have to spend a lot of time delivering bad news.


Our sympathies naturally are for the "axee" but spare a thought for the "axer". Doctors in specialties where they frequently have to deliver bad news have been found to suffer higher rates of burn-out and stress.

Kate Sweeny and James Shepperd wrote in the Review of General Psychology that doctors were so stressed by the prospect of delivering bad news that 40 per cent admitted to putting an inaccurate and over-optimistic gloss on actual life expectancy estimates, partly to relieve themselves of the burden of dealing with negative patient reaction.

Sweeny and Shepperd suggest the strategy of considering what the receiver of the news really wants or needs. Often they may not want to hear the truth. The problem for the bearer of bad news is that it could be in the other's longer-term interests to go through the stress of hearing something they don't want to as it allows them make better plans.

Measured approach

While there are numerous courses on giving bad news, the reality, as Sweeny and Shepperd point out, is that how to do it depends on the goal. Often we feel angry at the way superiors delivered bad news to us without realising it was probably perfectly understandable when looked at from the standpoint of their personal goals.

Sometimes it is imperative that the person receiving the news grasps just how bad things are, but at the same time is not knocked sideways so hard that they cannot take the necessary action to help themselves. Perhaps this is the scenario that places the greatest demands on the bearer of bad news.

Breaking and receiving bad news is an incredibly difficult art and it is vital that we keep our wits about us and try to ensure that the strong emotions involved do not deflect us from the best goal.

It is useful to think about what our aim is and to try to salvage out of the situation what can best bring about our objective.