Someone Has to Deliver the Bad News: What to Learn From GM and Sophocles
44 recalls. 13 deaths. 20 million vehicles. 9 years. 3 Congressional appearances. These five numbers tell a terrible and tragic story you probably recognize as the GM ignition switch recall debacle. This is a situation that makes business leaders cringe. What surprises me is the persistent and in-depth coverage the media is giving to this unfolding scandal. Its been months now and GM’s missteps are still making front page news.
There are so many angles to the story that it is tough to figure out exactly what to take away from the story. What can we learn?
More importantly, how can we prevent this from happening to any company ever again?
The breakdown here was not at the top-level. There was no executive-led hush-up of bad statistics or engineering reports whose conclusions were “danger.” Instead, we have a situation that is relatively common at companies of all types and sizes: a lower or mid-level employee notices a problem, speaks up about it to their manger or colleagues and then… nothing. Maybe the problem report goes up the chain a couple more rungs but the end result is the same – it never makes it to the top.
The saying “don’t shoot the messenger” has been around for a long time. Sophocles in Antigone told us that “for no man delights in the bearer of bad news[,]” and Shakespeare in Henry IV, part 2 tells us that “Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office, and his tongue sounds ever after as a sullen bell[.]”
Antigone was written around 441 BC. That means humans have been aware that being the bearer of bad news is not a good position to be in for a very very long time.
Employees also know this. No one wants to be the one single hand raised in a meeting that says, “yes we can but should we?” Or the one saying, “no we can’t sell this extremely profitable new product because it isn’t safe.” Or, in GM’s case, no one wants to be GM employee Laura Andres in 2005 who experienced the ignition switch defect first hand when her Chevy Impala car experienced an engine stall when she drove from pavement to gravel.
She wrote an email to her supervisor and 10 other GM employees, including the VP of North American engineering. Fast forward nine years to last week and her car, the 2006 Impala, was recalled for an ignition-switch issue.
From GM’s investigation, it appears that a number of people knew about the ignition switch defect dangers and that the problem was discussed but no one did anything about it – no one wanted to be the bearer of bad news for top-level executives.
How can companies prevent this? By promoting an open and transparent work environment that encourages people to voice their concerns – yes, of course.
But a company who truly wants to prevent this from happening to itself will put into place another route – an anonymous internal hotline or anonymous email submission method with procedures in place that will follow up on each report and make sure that any issues are resolved. One without the other is pointless.
Yes, the person investigating these anonymous reports has a tough job. Ultimately, they may become the voice that bears bad news (and, of course, sometimes good news) to managers and executives. But the fact is someone has to do it.
Too many companies make the mistake of not putting in these systems – the ones that will make sure the bad news gets as much attention as the good. Don’t make that mistake because bad news doesn’t go away – it hibernates until it emerges a decade later in the form of three Congressional appearances for your CEO and non-stop media coverage.