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Tell Me Bad News--Now

My loyal blog readers--both of you--may remember that last week I suggested Delta add slack to its system to be better able to respond to unforeseen circumstances. Today, I will discuss how they should have done a better job with communication.

For those who may need a refresher, I was scheduled to take a flight out of LaGuardia at 2:00. At 1:50 the board was still announcing an on time departure though we had not started loading yet. We finally departed at 4:30.

After it became clear that we would not be leaving at 2:00, the display delayed our departure to 2:45 and the gate agent gave no explanation. At around 2:45, with no announcement from the agent, the display changed again to 3:30.

After the second delay, I approached the gate agent and asked what was happening. He then informed me that the flight attendant crew had been stuck in Boston because that flight was delayed. He continued that they had left Boston, and would be landing at Laguardia by 3:15, so the 3:30 posted departure seemed right. I, ever so politely, pointed out that if the plane landed at 3:15, given everything the crew must do from deplaning the arriving plane to getting to our gate to preparing our plane would take substantially longer than 15 minutes. He agreed and the board still announced a 3:30 departure.

Delta knew the extent of the delay much earlier than the passengers. I wondered why they did not disclose the truth earlier. I devised two theories--the right hand never informed the left hand of the facts so the gate agent was left in the dark. Or somehow, they felt that announcing three delays was less upsetting than initially broadcasting a two and ½ hour delay. After all, who is going to get too worked up by a 45 minute delay?

Delta was wrong. When you have bad news, you should almost always rip off the bandaid and let your constituents know the whole unvarnished truth. This approach is better for two reasons.

One, bad news is bad news. It is better to hear it once, decide how to move forward and then put it behind you. When bad news drips out, you are constantly changing plans to deal with it and getting more and more irritated. (If I knew the plane was going to be two and ½ hours late I might have booked another flight. Delta’s way of informing me robbed me of that opportunity.)

The second reason is sharing the whole truth, no matter how ugly, allows you to be seen as credible. Credibility is so important for future dealings. Teamwork relies on trust. If folks do not trust you, you will not be successful at your endeavor.

Another mistake Delta made was not telling the passengers early the why behind the delay. The plane was at the gate, the day was beautiful, and a man looking suspiciously like a pilot was at the gate area. It was hard for travelers to understand why the flight was being delayed. When I heard that the flight attendants were delayed, at least I understood why our plane was late. That information dissipated some of my frustration with Delta.

In conclusion, communicate bad news honestly and completely and let the listener know, as far as you can, why things turned out badly. This will make the news easier to bear.

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