Hiding bad news demotivates employees, study finds

24 Oct 2017 By Marianne Calnan

Managers urged not to ‘underestimate the power of communication’

Withholding important information from staff is demotivating, regardless of whether the news is good or bad, according to a new study that suggests the quality and honesty of internal communication may be a crucial factor in engagement.

Researchers from Warwick Business School asked participants to play a game of ‘dictator’. This involved one participant trying to motivate another to transfer them as much money as possible by giving them either £5 or £10, although the person being given the money in the first instance would not be aware of how much they had been given.

The person sending the money could then spend £1 to tell their partner whether they had been sent a higher or lower amount. The researchers found that people who had been given no indication as to whether they had been given £5 or £10 transferred on average 48 per cent less back to the other person than if they had been told they had only been given £5.

The researchers then varied the game so that the first person would know whether they had been given £5 or £10, but the amounts they transferred back were still 40 per cent lower if their partner decided not to tell them how much they were sending over – even though they already knew.

“People are not only motivated by money,” said Dr Leif Brandes, assistant professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of Warwick. “Instead, informing them about relevant developments in the work environment can boost performance.”

Brandes warned that the experiment has parallels in real workplaces, because managers tend to have access to information before their reports and can decide whether to share or withhold it. “Many go for the latter, which demotivates staff,” he said. “Managers should take note: it is not uncommon for uninformed employees to eventually even leave the company, so sometimes bad news is better than none.”

Commenting on the research findings, Linda Lavery, director of the HR Dept in Liverpool, told People Management: “Managers often underestimate the power of communication to increase productivity and morale. It takes a brave manager to tell their team bad news, but by doing so they will earn respect and trust, which makes the team work more productively in the long run.”

Lavery encouraged HR professionals to prompt managers to be open with the information where possible, by “holding regular meetings, listening groups and suggestion schemes” for staff. “That way, employees are participating in the businesses success, which will increase motivation,” she said.

Meanwhile, Howard Sloane, managing partner at Teslo HR, urged those with responsibility for delivering news to employees to consider “what you are going to say, in what format, how often and how it’ll be delivered”.

“Delivering bad news confidently, in good time and articulately will increase your chances of support,” he said. ”If you believe in someone’s conviction when it comes to delivering bad news, you are more likely to believe they will try and support you, and this will naturally motivate you.”

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