It has been a tough year for Anthony’s Orchard. There are multiple performance markers that contribute to how raises are determined, and you just learned that the planned annual raise of 2.5% has been eliminated. Although you haven’t communicated to the team about the raise, the time to do so is now, and you know that a rumor had been circulating in the department about the planned raise being approved.Your team consists of the following individuals:Jan – a recently divorced mother of twoCarl – a married man with no childrenWilliam – a man nearing retirement age who is planning accordinglyBrenda – a woman who is eligible for a raise for the first timePhillip – a man who is currently on a performance improvement plan, and is therefore not eligible for a raiseTo complete the Communication Portfolio Assignment, compose a cohesive document that addresses the following:Determine an appropriate communication strategy for the team. Here are some ideas/considerations:Group e-mailTeam huddle (or meeting) ( My preference would be a group meeting)Formal letterIndividual face-to-face meetings or phone callsAddress the following to help you find the most appropriate strategy:Describe criteria for evaluating the delivery of the bad news message in terms of what is within your control.Compare and contrast the different channels with regard to effective delivery of this news.Summarize some of the principles of effective delivery.What is the tone for the communication?Once you have determined your communication strategy, use the following to develop a communication plan:Compose an opening statement (3–4 sentences to frame the communication).This statement is what you would use to start your communication in a one-on-one capacity, through e-mail, or at a group meeting.If you choose to host a one-on-one, identify which employee is receiving the message.Compose the body of your message using the most appropriate techniques for delivering bad news.Conclude your communication plan and be sure to address any next steps or follow-up items.
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unicating Negative Messages Business Communication Quarterly
Communicating Negative Messages
Positive Organizational
Behavior: A Buffer for
Bad News
Business Communication Quarterly
75(2) 208­–220
© 2012 by the Association for
Business Communication
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1080569912441823
Sandra L. French1
and Tracey Quigley Holden2
Most communication research on bad news messages focuses on crisis communication,
where attention is often limited to image repair strategies. The authors argue that
a key indicator of an organization’s effectiveness in communicating “bad news”
messages is its organizational culture. Developing an organizational culture that values
positive organizational behavior can transform the way that “bad news” messages
are crafted and received in the workplace. In this article, the authors demonstrate
how organizational leadership and practice from the positive organizational behavior
perspective can assist with communicating “bad news” messages, particularly during
organizational crises.
bad news messages, crisis communication, positive psychology
Introduction: The Art and
Science of “Bad News” Messages
Research on “bad news” emerges across the spectrum of communication. “Bad news”
for business appears in many forms—the announcement of layoffs, poor financial
outcomes, crises of internal or external origin, and natural disasters, among others.
The particular type of “bad news” is not at issue here but rather the communication
practices encompassing the delivery of bad news. In this article, we focus on what
Radford University, USA
University of Delaware, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sandra L. French, Radford University, PO Box 6932, Radford, VA 24142, USA
Communicating Negative Messages
positive psychology can teach business communication professionals about disseminating bad news during an organizational crisis such as unforeseen downsizing, layoffs, and acute organizational events.
In 1999, Locker examined the extant literature on negative messages, including the
prescriptive practices from 57 textbooks. She found that the conventional wisdom on
negative messages was contained in six principles—in effect, the classic sandwich.
The most frequently suggested sandwich approach constructs negative messages with
a prefatory buffer, the bad news, an explanation, and a closing buffer, thus “sandwiching” the bad news between pieces of additional communication (Guffey & Loewy,
2011; Lehman & Dufrene, 2009). And yet, in Locker’s survey of research in several
settings, she found that the sandwich approach was deemed “not useful in the workplace” (Locker, 1999, p. 9). Locker’s own research led her to conclude that only two
pieces of the sandwich were valuable—the directives to “present the negative as positively as possible, and offer an alternative or compromise if one is available” (p. 31).
Responding to Locker’s assessment, Limaye (2001) agrees that the conventional wisdom is flawed and directs attention to the opportunity costs and psychological attribution processes of bad news as potential guides for rethinking bad news message
construction. Limaye makes a compelling case for the value of explanation in a bad
news message, claiming that the “price paid for nonprovision of explanation is lowered employee morale, damage to employee satisfaction, and loss of management
credibility” (p. 106). Although Limaye focuses on the explanation offered by the
deliverer of the bad news and how tailoring that piece of the sandwich can positively
influence the outcome, he stops short of a specific form or guideline for producing
such a message.
More recent work in the construction of negative messages validates Limaye’s
approach of incorporating explanation and extends this into a preference for an indirect structure—offering the explanation first. Jansen and Janssen (2011) conducted a
series of experiments testing direct and indirect message structures for comprehension, compliance, and evaluation of the writer. They found that indirect messages were
better at preserving the “face” of the recipient and allowed for the negative message to
be accepted more readily. Jansen and Janssen suggest that this structure works because
offering the explanation first allows the reader to gradually adapt to the sender’s thinking, as “the decision becomes a part of their cognitive belief system even before they
actually read it” (p. 60).
The structure and design of bad news messages has evolved considerably, but we
argue that there is more to the story. Bad news must be delivered or dealt with in many
situations facing organizations. The suggestions of current research focus almost
exclusively on the specifics of such delivery rather than the handling of bad news
within the larger context of ongoing business operations. Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger
(2007) point to the absolute certainty that bad news or crisis will confront a business
and the need to develop, not only a contingency plan but also an overall approach to
such situations. The conditions that precipitate the need to deliver bad news or address
an organizational crisis can offer opportunities for renewal of an organization, if
Business Communication Quarterly 75(2)
skillfully managed. The authors invoke the popularized (but incorrect) meaning of the
Chinese symbols for crisis as “dangerous opportunity” to underscore this concept.
However, Mair, Professor of Chinese Languages and Literature at the University of
Pennsylvania, offers an explanation of the characters on his website that better supports the position being advanced. Mair writes in Mair, Mair, and Liqing (2009),
While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of
wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely
does not signify “opportunity.” The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like
“incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).”
From the business perspective, that is indeed the essence of delivering or dealing with
bad news. This translation makes Ulmer et al.’s (2007) position on bad news and crisis
communication practices even more on point—they conclude that “effective communication skills are essential to creating positive, renewing opportunities at these turning points.” (p. 4)
Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger ground their work in an approach to leadership and
communication focused on positive values, virtues, and optimism (Seeger & Ulmer,
2001; Ulmer & Sellnow, 2002). Such a perspective is radically different from much of
the conventional wisdom concerning the delivery of bad news and crisis communication within business research and practice. What makes the difference is not just a shift
from a structural approach focused on messaging to a more contextualized perspective
emphasizing organizational leadership and culture. This focus on renewal and opportunity comes from an entirely different way of thinking about business, leadership, and
communication. We suggest that this shift is consistent with the tenets and insights of
the Positive Psychology movement.
The Positive Psychology
Movement: Bad News Gets Reframed
The positive psychology movement offers a new paradigm for studying organizations.
Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement, developed a manual of
Character Strengths and Virtues (C. Peterson & Seligman, 2004) specifically as a
“positive” counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM). The positive psychology movement investigates the “conditions, and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and
institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 103). All positive psychology–related organizational research shifts in perspective from a “disease”-based, problem-solving model
as the most suitable approach to improved organizational performance, to one in
which positive resources are identified and investigated (Linley, Harrington, &
Garcea 2010). The overarching philosophy of Positive Organizational Scholarship
(POS) is a marriage of positive psychology and organizational studies. POS seeks to
understand how to cultivate excellence in organizations by unlocking individuals’
Communicating Negative Messages
potential. Specifically, through an investigation of “positive deviance,” POS explores
the ways in which individuals use and develop strengths leading to exceptional performance at both the individual and organizational levels (Linley et al., 2010). In
investigating extraordinary performance, POS often focuses on the macro or institutional levels of analysis (Youssef & Luthans, 2007) rather than individual organizational actors.
A similar line of organizational research, positive organizational behavior (POB),
is defined by Luthans (2003) as “the study and application of positively oriented
human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace”
(p. 179). POB focuses more on individuals, or micro levels of analysis. POB tends to
emphasize four core capacities: self-efficacy, hope, optimism, and resiliency
(Donaldson & Ko, 2010; Luthans, Avey, Avolio, Norman, & Combs, 2006).
“Houston, We Have a Problem . . .”:
Positive Psychology and Organizational Crises
As we stated previously, there are many types of “bad news” messages experienced
in organizations, including layoffs, customer service problems, and negative performance reviews. Here, we focus on what positive psychology can teach business communication professionals about disseminating bad news during an acute organizational
Acute organizational events, or organizational crises, are “specific, unexpected and
non-routine events or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threaten
or are perceived to threaten an organizations’ high priority goals” (Seeger, Sellnow, &
Ulmer, 1998, p. 233). The bulk of crisis communication research focuses on problems
and failures: what organizations have done badly, how crises have been poorly handled, and what mistakes management has made (Small, 1991; Ulmer & Sellnow,
2000). Crisis communication literature is largely based on its own version of a “disease” model, expending most research resources explaining organizational deficits
rather than organizational strengths.
We contend that an investigation of organizational strengths, and what positive
communication behaviors exist when communicating bad news during a crisis, should
focus on an organization’s CEO. According to Seeger and Ulmer (2001), during times
of crisis, the CEO is usually the designated spokesperson and “may also establish the
moral tone for the crisis response” (p. 369). CEOs are often called up to establish
the facts of the crisis, make important judgment calls, and communicate directly with
the media (Modzelewski, 1990).
Scholar and business consultant Gaines-Ross (2003) studies the relationship between
CEOs, their personal reputations, and their companies’ success. Coining the term CEO
capital, Gaines-Ross’s book of the same name cites a 1998 poll of the general public indicating that a CEO’s reputation accounted for 48% of a company’s reputation. Gaines-Ross
argues, “The CEO must come to terms with the idea of being the ultimate spokesperson for
Business Communication Quarterly 75(2)
the organization, the embodiment of the brand, and the official storyteller who knits
together the company’s past, present, and future” (p. 39). Park and Berger (2004) argue
that CEOs are the public face of a company, particularly during organizational crises, and
as such warrant particular attention as the subject of crisis research.
However, following the “disease” model, most current research on CEO performance during times of crisis focuses on what not to do. For example, former Exxon
CEO Lawrence Rawl is often excoriated for his handling of the Valdez oil spill, in
particular for his failure to publicize his personal trip to the spill site (Modzelewski,
1990) and his attempt to avoid responsibility by blaming Captain Joseph Hazelwood
(Small, 1991). More recently, BP executive Tony Hayward was rebuked by public
relations professionals and the general public alike with regard to the 2010 oil spill of
the U.S. Gulf Coast. When visiting Venice, Louisiana, to survey damage and issue an
apology, in which he stated, “The first thing to say is I’m sorry,” he told reporters.
“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who
wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back” (“BP Chief to Gulf
Residents,” 2010). Hayward’s gaffe reflects not only his own communicative inadequacies but a broader problem for CEOs—the misperception of what constitutes effective, positive communication. Research supports the prevalence of this problem—in
1998, Coopers and Lybrand conducted a survey of CEOs, middle managers, and nonmanagers. The survey found that while “82 percent of CEOs believe that they lead by
positive personal example . . . fewer than 40% of nonmanagement employees agree”
(Steinberg, 1998, p. 70). Moreover, 95% of the CEOs claimed to have an open-door
policy for the communication of bad news upstream, but more than half of employees
believed the bad news messenger was running a serious risk. Such a perspective does
not facilitate a strong business climate—in fact, such communicative problems have
resulted in huge business losses, even failures (Steinberg, 1998). More recently, leader
communication has become an even more critical element of business practice. The
current financial crisis has eroded employee confidence in senior leadership from 51%
in 2004 to less than 20% in 2009 (Davis, 2010). What is a beleaguered CEO to do?
Within the crisis communication literature, a handful of “exemplary” crisis
responses from CEOs have been studied and applauded, including Tylenol’s James
Burke and his handling of the cyanide tampering of 1982, which Fortune magazine
described as “the gold standard in crisis control” (Yang & Levenson, 2007). Other
models of effective crisis management include CEO of Malden Mills’ Aaron
Feuerstein’s response to the 1995 factory fire (Seeger & Ulmer, 2001) and Milt Cole’s
response to Cole Hardwoods’ 1998 fire (Seeger & Ulmer, 2001). Seeger and Ulmer
applaud these CEOs for their “virtuous” responses to their respective organizational
tragedies. These exemplary cases involve a leader, usually a CEO, responding quickly
and ethically to an organizational crisis.
In Locker’s 1999 article, she suggested that buffers should not continue to be used
in bad news messages, particularly the closing buffer, explaining that a bad news
message with a strongly positive end engendered negative feelings. By combining the
insights gained from exemplary examples in crisis communication research with the
Communicating Negative Messages
underpinnings of POB research, we can create a new model of offering bad news messages that can assist business communication professionals in teaching students more
options for delivering bad news.
Working Toward a New Model
There are a handful of studies that have explored the relationship between CEO performance and positive psychology. Starting with a broad perspective, Brockner and
James (2008) investigate when executives view organizational crises as opportunities,
stating “crises have the potential to be a catalyst for positive organizational change”
(p. 95). Focusing on when executives transition from framing a crisis as a threat versus an opportunity, Brockner and James argue that in a crisis, decision makers tend to
tighten control and rely on traditional ways of thinking about problem solving in order
to reduce the uncertainty that accompanies a crisis. Traditional ways of thinking
include viewing a crisis as a threat and responding by restricting activities, for example, enacting cost-cutting measures. They propose that executives who are willing to
engage in reflection and learning are more inclined to view organizational crises as
opportunities to enact positive change.
S. J. Peterson, Walumbwa, Byron, and Myrowitz (2009) investigate the relationship between CEO positive psychological traits and transformational leadership. The
authors adopt a POB approach, exploring the concepts of hope, optimism, and resiliency. Their research illustrates that CEOs rated as more hopeful, optimistic, and resilient are also rated (both in self-ratings and the ratings of their followers) as engaging
in more transformational leadership behaviors. According to their research, the key
constructs of hope, optimism, and resiliency are similar but distinguishable. Thus, we
will examine these concepts in greater detail.
Synder et al. (1991) define hope as a two-pronged cognitive construct, built from the
aspects of “pathways” and “agency.” Pathways reflect an individual’s self-perception
of their capability to secure a plausible route to their personal goals. The second
aspect, agency, relates to an individual’s motivation to proceed toward goal achievement. Working in concert, these two components provide individuals with the means
and motivation to achieve their personal goals. According to S. J. Peterson et al.
(2009), “Those lower in hope lack the ability to conceive of strategies to meet goals
and to overcome obstacles and the motivation to pursue the strategies that lead to goal
achievement” (p. 350). It is theorized here that CEOs high in reservoirs of hope will
find more creative strategies for dealing with crises.
Optimism as a trait is the generalized expectation of an individual that good things
will happen, despite potentially adverse circumstances (Carver & Scheier, 1999).
Business Communication Quarterly 75(2)
Those possessing the trait of optimism tend to focus on the good. Optimism has been
demonstrated to have a positive impact on work performance (Luthans et al., 2006;
Seligman, 1998). Optimists differ in their interpretation of positive and negative
events from those low in this psychological resource. It is theorized here that CEOs
who possess the trait of optimism may instinctively navigate crises more effectively.
Defining resiliency as “the capacity to modify responses to changing situational
demands, especially frustrating or stressful encounters,” Tugade and Fredrickson
(2004, p. 322) argue that one’s ability to use positive emotions results in finding
positive meaning in negative circumstances. As a result, resilient individuals tend to
rebound more quickly from negative situations. It is theorized here that resilience can
help CEOs move past the shock and narrow thinking that often accompany crisis situations and more quickly engage in creative and positive crisis resolution. By looking
in depth at a CEO response to crisis, positive psychology offers a new approach to
crisis management rooted in the psychological capacities of the CEO.
CEOs and Resilience
The concept of resiliency is not unique to the positive psychology literature. In organizational science, resiliency can mean the maintenance of positive adjustment under
challenging conditions (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999) and the ability to recover
from unexpect …
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