How do you tell a client that he’s lost his case, but there’s hope, at least, in appeal? How do you tell an employee you value their service, but the firm is downsizing?
The legal services business is rife with the good news/bad news scenario. So which do you present to people first?
Let’s start with the bad news. At least, that’s what most people would say.
In a paper published March 2014 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, authors Angela Legg and Kate Sweeny studied whether or not participants would rather hear good news or bad news first. An overwhelming number of people (78%) preferred to receive negative feedback first, followed by positive feedback.
According to the study, participants believed that hearing good news last would help them end on a high note.
This is not entirely surprising as we’ve all been in the same position—wanting to jerk the Band-Aid off bad news quickly before reaching the healing, positive portion of the getting-news phase.
However, a second study, according to Psychology Today, turned around and asked the same participants to deliver good and bad news. It asked which order participants preferred to present it in, and the results are not what you might think.
Participants were split. Half wanted to deliver bad news first, assuming that’s what others wanted to hear, and half wanted to deliver good news first, believing it would be—selfishly—easier for them.
As a law firm manager, which matters most? Do you want to make bad news easier to hear or easier to deliver?
Well, it turns out, this all depends on what outcome you desire.
Let’s say you’re delivering a performance review to an associate. It may be that you want him or her to work on honing a specific skill or improving a certain behavior. In this case, it might be better to deliver bad news last.
Studies show that when negative feedback about a person’s personality is delivered last, people are more interested in changing their mood and behavior than if the same feedback is delivered first. Apparently once negative feedback is heard and followed by positive feedback, participants are less worried and committed to changing negative aspects of their personality.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re a law firm delivering good and bad news to a client. You likely want to retain their business, so leading with the bad news and ending your meeting with the good news might be the best way to go. Once clients hear the positive aspects of your firm’s performance and their legal prospects, they will have a heightened mood and perception of the situation.
Giving bad news last may sour a client’s opinion of your firm and leave them lingering on a low note.
In the end, it’s probably not a good idea to give people a choice: do you want to hear the bad news or good news first? Instead, decide what follow-up behavior you’re hoping to spur and decide on a sequence of news accordingly.
A law firm manager or partner’s position as the bearer of bad news is certainly not an envied one. But, with the proper ordering of feedback to clients and employees, perhaps society can learn to stop shooting the messenger.