How to Prevent Bad Information From Spreading – Lessons From Missing Flight 370

2510847100_c697facd8b_oAs the news around Malaysia Airlines flight 370 demonstrates, when people don’t have the information they need then they will invent it – and, typically, what they invent is much worse than reality. You have three options for dealing with missing information, including “communicating that you can’t communicate.” Failing to communicate isn’t one of them.

If you followed the news reports about Malaysia Airlines flight 370 you saw all the facts that were known: who the pilot was, when the flight took off, when contact was lost, and so on. There was, however, a gap in the information about the flight: What happened to the plane!

You also saw that “information gap” quickly filled in with the opinions of experts, lists of possible locations for the plane and, ultimately, with fantasy (my favorite example being one website that was sure that the plane had been taken to a secret island hideaway by a criminal mastermind). As the authorities searched for the plane by following up on the expert opinions and exploring those possible locations, it turned that all of those suggestions were wrong.

This same model applies to your organization: When your team doesn’t have information that they feel they need, everyone will speculate about what that “missing information” is. Some experts in the organization will even start providing the missing information to others (and many of those “experts” aren’t very expert at all). Practically no one will shrug their shoulders and say “Well, I guess we just don’t know.”

Filling in the Gap

In other words, there is never an “information gap”: When there is some information that your team wants to know and that information isn’t provided then fantasy information will fill the gap.

I first saw this in action when I was at university. Students (like myself) could pick up our interim projects/assignments with feedback from our instructors from a bin outside the instructors’ offices. On occasion, assignments we expected to find there were missing and we didn’t know why. Many students assumed their assignments had been stolen by other students unable to complete their own assignments.

As my university experience shows, what makes the problem worse is how the gap is filled. While there are exceptions, human beings are most likely to fill in the information gap with what they fear. In my university days that fear manifested itself in a fantasy about unscrupulous students (and, in the case of flight 370, filled with criminal masterminds with secret lairs). The American Psychological Association has an excellent review of the research done in this area (including Robert Knapp’s work with the OSS during the Second World War on how to spread “disinformation”).

As Learning Tree’s course on building high performance team points out, part of your job as a leader is to prevent bad information from being circulated. You need to do that by not only communicating the available information but also by communicating the missing information. You need to communicate information that:

  • You’d rather leave unsaid (bad news)
  • Really is missing (ignorance)
  • Can’t be shared with your team (silence)

If you’re not careful about how you handle communicating that missing information, though, it’s possible to do more harm than good.

How to Communicate Bad News and Ignorance

When we have bad news to communicate, we often put off passing the information on to our teams. Avoiding passing on bad news just leaves an information gap that will be almost immediately filled. In almost every cause, your team will assume that the news is much worse than it really is. Communicating bad news early lets your team react to the reality rather than the fantasy. Forbes magazine has an excellent article on the ten commandments for delivering bad news.

And, by the way, bad news tends to grow into really awful news. Returning to my university story, I was told that one student (an ex-police office) had actually discovered another student stealing an assignment and had knocked the thief to the ground. When I later asked the ex-police officer/student about the incident she told me that it had never happened – she had simply remarked once that if she had “ever caught someone taking one of her assignments,” she would deck him. By the time the story got to me, however, it had turned from speculation into an actual event.

Sometimes we don’t communicate because we don’t know what the real information is. In these cases, you are better off communicating that you don’t know than communicating nothing. You can, for example, communicate whatever partial information you do have. It’s critical that you clearly indicate that what’s missing is missing because you don’t know. If you don’t mention something, people tend to assume you have a nastier reason than ignorance for not mentioning. Explicitly saying that you don’t know prevents that.

How to Communicate Silence

When you have information that you aren’t allowed to pass onto your team, it’s tempting to tell your team that you “don’t know.” This is always a mistake: If your team discovers that you do know but aren’t sharing information, your credibility with your team will be damaged, perhaps irreparably.

The right answer is to tell the truth and acknowledge the situation. It’s OK to tell your team that you have some information that, for various reasons, you can’t communicate (at least, not yet). The issue with this choice is that your team will assume that the reason you can’t share the information is is because it’s awful news. Of course, that’s what your team will assume anyway so you’re really no worse off. If it’s possible to discuss why you can’t share information, you can dismiss the more awful alternatives by providing the reasons for your silence (legal requirements may prevent you from sharing information, for example).

Effectively, it boils down to this: As a leader, not communicating is never an option…even if you have to communicate that you are not, at present, able to tell your team what they would like to know.

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