Field Notes

What Values Have to Do with Delivering Bad News

A colleague of mine was recently presented with a fantastic opportunity, although she did not initially see it that way. As the VP of Accounts for a small startup, she was responsible for telling her CEO that a big client would not be renewing their contract. It meant that they could not count on the client’s revenue for next year’s projections and that several developers and project managers would have to be reassigned to new projects. After she shared with me how much she dreaded breaking the news to the leadership team and how she worried this would set the company back, I asked her to share what happened. How had they lost the client?

She revealed that behind the scenes, the client had been overly demanding and disrespectful to the project team. The client never shared accountability for risks or roadblocks and continually blamed her team for anything the client team was dissatisfied with, even after several expectation-setting conversations. It had escalated to a point where several members of her team were asking to leave the project and admitting they were searching for new roles elsewhere.

When it came time to negotiate the contract with this client, my colleague advocated for changes in the partnership to ensure her team would get the respect they deserve. “After a few negotiation meetings, it was clear to me that nothing would change if we continued to work with them. So I told them we could no longer be their partner. It’s all my fault.”

Assuming full responsibility for decisions is a mark of a strong leader. Great leaders take this a step further. They know that they make all decisions—small or big, tactical or strategic—in the context of underlying values and principles. The best leaders use their decisions, even the ones that not everyone will like, to show what they or the organization stand for.

My colleague was ready to take full responsibility for the decision to cut ties with this client but assumed the worst repercussions for her decision. What she didn’t realize was that her decision wasn’t a mistake — it was exactly the right thing to do given what she and the organization as a whole stand for. While her CEO and leadership team might be concerned that the loss of this client would impact their bottom line, they would probably also be concerned to learn the potential damage that keeping this client could have had on the team and the organization’s reputation for how it treats its employees and partners with clients. 

Knowing that her company and CEO invested significant resources in employees’ job satisfaction and work / life balance, we discussed how the core values she used to make her decision were in line with the values shared by the organization and leadership. She had an opportunity to lead with these values when she met with the CEO and leadership team and use this decision as a catalyst to remind everyone around the table what is most important about working at the company. While financials matter a great deal, people matter more. And while the C-suite can address this in words during Q&A sessions and in how they shape the employee handbook, nothing speaks louder than their actions and business decisions.

When leaders use shared values to frame and drive their decisions, there is little room for others to disagree with them, even if their decisions have potentially negative consequences. If my colleague had merely focused the conversation on the lost revenue and taken the blame for the decision without reminding the CEO and leadership team of the values that drove her decision, she might have only received negative feedback on her performance and pressure to make up for the lost revenue. By leading with values instead, she was commended and thanked for her decision to let the client go. While the CEO and leadership team asked her to think about how to prevent something like this from happening in the future, they were reminded of and showed confidence in her ability to lead.

Every day, leaders have the chance to reinforce what really matters. Big decisions are especially significant opportunities. The more teams believe they share the same values with their peers, the more likely they are to collaborate with colleagues and illustrate these values through their actions. The best leaders recognize that if they lead with these values, every decision—even those with less-than-ideal outcomes—can have a positive effect on the whole.

– DF