“To buffer negative affect … relay good news last, but if the goal is behavior change then ending with bad news may be best.”—A. Legg, K. Sweeny, A. Nguyen; Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside
Getting bad news is “bad news”—but chances are that hearing it before [or after] the good news, or before [or after] anyone else in the office, can, in many instances, make it seem so much worse.
But, like kids in a broccoli face-off, some want to get it out of the way fast; others, to postpone it as long as possible. Why that should be the case is a question well worth asking and, as I will attempt below, answering.
The big “bad news-good news” questions for HR management are these:
- Should you break and give the bad news only, or first, last, in some “sandwiched” form, e.g., “good news-bad news-good news” or “neutral news-good news-bad news”?
- Should you receive the bad news first, last or in some “sandwiched” form, e.g., “good news-bad news-good news” or “neutral news-good news-bad news
- Which does a given—not necessarily or probably every—employee or job applicant prefer, and how, if at all, does or should that preference matter to the HR department?
Irrespective of whether it is first, last or in-between, the bad news is going to stand out—because of the “primacy”, “recency” or “Von Restorff” effects [which I recently explored in “
Among their findings summarized in “Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News First? News Order Influences Recipients’ Mood, Perceptions, and Behaviors”, University of California, Riverside researchers Angela Legg, Kate Sweeny and undergraduate Ann Nguyen, reported that
“People who received good news last reported better mood and appraisal of the results. Additionally, people who received bad news last reported greater intentions for behavioral change and were more likely to watch the improvement video. Our findings suggest that there is no correct approach to delivering news and that, instead, newsgivers should consider the optimal outcomes for the recipient. To buffer negative affect they should relay good news last, but if the goal is behavior change then ending with bad news may be best.”
UCR Today reported that “the psychologists found that recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear that bad news first, while news-givers prefer to deliver good news first. If news-givers can put themselves in the recipient’s shoes, or if they’re pushed to consider how to make the recipient feel better, then they might be willing to give news like recipients want them to. Otherwise, a mismatch is almost inevitable.”
The research format required participants to complete a personality test and receive secretly faked results in either a “good then bad”, “bad then good” or “bad only” order. Participants completed questionnaires about how they felt about their results and chose whether to watch a personality improvement video.
More generally, and with respect to preferences, other research indicates that when participants were given a choice, most people (up to 88%) preferred to hear bad news first before the good news (Marshall, L. L. & Kidd, R. F. (1981). “Good news or bad news first?” Social Behavior and Personality, 9(2), 223-226.).
In follow-up research of their own, Legg and Sweeny replicated comparable results, reporting that the majority of participants (78%) preferred to hear the bad news first.
However, what people want to hear and what they should hear first are not necessarily the same thing, much as what we want to say and should say are not. So, before blabbing the bad news first, pause and consider the following:
1. What about giving only bad news? From an HR management standpoint, this could be a very smart move, e.g., in cases of termination “with prejudice”. Slathering on a salve of good news at the end of a firing could expose an employer to the risk of litigation or at least protest: “How could they fire me after citing my great sales figures?”
2. Why is it apparently “human nature” to want the bad news first? In the first place, this isn’t an ironclad principle of human nature and behavior. Optimal or preferred good news-bad news sequencing can be highly dependent upon context.
For example, when others who are not privy to the conversation are within earshot, giving the bad news first can be a huge gaffe that is likely to humiliate, infuriate and probably provoke the bad-news recipient.
So, always check the context of the news delivery before robotically sticking to one presentation formula again. Stall, give the good news first, pad it with something else, and wait until the others leave or request that they do that.
Nonetheless, context-dependency aside and other things being equal, a preference for bad news first may reflect an unconscious assumption that pleasure can accelerate recovery from pain faster than time alone can. Compare a sunburn followed by a cool swim in an indoor pool with the reverse. Got it? The swim after the burn will provide faster and better relief than the mere passage of time in the shade, while swimming only before the born will afford neither protection nor later comfort or relief.
On the other hand, if the situation parameters or the personality of the individual receiving the news favor a stronger recency effect, e.g., because of a very short [pot-induced] cognitive or emotional attention span, whatever comes last will have the greatest effect, irrespective of whether it is good or bad news.
Hence, someone who prefers the bad first may be capitalizing on that kind of short cognitive-emotional attention span, which can pass for “resilience”.
The first consideration makes a preference for a good news-bad news sequence not only a matter of human nature, but a matter of simple logic: “Damage–>repair” is the logical sequence; “Repair–>damage” is moronic, in instances in which good news can function as repair of the damage inflicted by the bad news.
The second—the attention span or stronger recency effect—likewise makes a preference for good news last perfectly understandable, as an equivalent of “bad news first”.
[Continued in Part 2]