Authored by Christiane Montuori on Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 7:27 PM | Add the first comment!
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Yesterday’s New York Times had a big story on the dilemma doctors face when they discover a patient tests for early stages of Alzheimer’s long before dementia has set in (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/18/health/18moral.html?scp=2&sq=alzheimer%27s&st=cse) . Because there is no cure, some doctors argued, there is no reason to deliver this unsettling news.
Doctors who withhold essential information demean and patronize the patient by doing so. They are first and foremost protecting themselves, hiding their own lack of courage and capacity.
Delivering bad news is a leadership behavior. Delivering bad news well, so that the recipient can hear it, get through the pain, and act on it is an essential leadership skill.
Being direct with discomforting information is not an end in itself, but leadership is all about helping people face up to their most difficult challenges.
The Report of the White House Fiscal Commission (http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents/TheMomentofTruth12_1_2010.pdf) , chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, is an example of skillful bad news delivery. The real leadership there was embodied by the six sitting members of Congress on the Commission (Senators Coburn (R), Conrad (D), Crapo (R), Durbin (D) and Gregg (R), and Representative Spratt (D)), who endorsed the plan (3 other Republicans and 3 other Democrats were against it) knowing that they were going to get severe criticism from their core constituents, but prioritizing helping the country face up to its tough issues over their own short term self-interest.
It is never easy or fun facing up to tough issues and making hard choices. Doing so inevitably involves pain and loss. But especially for authority figures, like doctors and politicians, hiding bad news from people who have a need to know it is cowardice. Conveying difficult truths with directness, sensitivity, clarity, and compassion is an act of respect, regard, affection and…..leadership.
How good have you been recently at delivering bad news to those who need to hear it?