Updated: Sep 12, 2020
The train wreck speech that gave me a headache, and derailed staff morale and motivation.
The story I am about to tell you really happened. We all gathered for a Town Hall meeting in Sydney that had suddenly been requested by the Asia Pacific CEO of a large multi-national.
Our regional CEO, based in Singapore had especially travelled to Australia to deliver urgent news. Perhaps 100 of us sat in beige fold-back office chairs on the first floor while hundreds more attended via conference call.
We weren't sure what was going on, but there were rumours things were bad.
Off With His Head
The day before the requested Town Hall, the Asia Pacific CEO had fired the Australian CEO. Apparently, the region’s sales performance had been below par for some time, so a few heads rolled.
It’s A Train Wreck
I suppose because the firing of the Australian CEO was sudden, his former boss felt she needed to allay staff fears so the first thing she said was, “This is not a train wreck!”
In the next half hour, I counted her saying, “This is not a train wreck” at least five times interspersed with phrases like, "we've got a really tough mountain to climb but it's not a train wreck..." and "it's going to be really hard climbing up that mountain, but let me assure you, it's not a train wreck"... "and yes we'll get there...(thank goodness she added a tiny, positive notes)... even though it will be really tough. But like I said, it's definitely not a train wreck."
Try repeating "this is not a train wreck" five times under your breath. How does it make you feel? You probably don't feel too good. You might even feel queasy even though it's meant to be a positive statement.
While the CEO thought she was making staff believe all was well, her words were having the opposite effect. What we were actually thinking and feeling was that the situation was a complete train wreck and we were all doomed!
That’s because the words we were taking in were, “train wreck” and not, “this is not”. Science has shown that the brain doesn’t have the capacity to NOT, not think about things.
Paradoxical Effects Of Thought Suppression
This was proven in a fascinating study conducted in 1989 by Professor Daniel Wagner and colleagues at Harvard University, called the “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression” where participants were asked to think about a white bear and then suppress their thoughts about the white bear. Basically this research and subsequent studies have shown that when we're told to suppress a specific thought it comes back stronger and will then intensely occupy our thinking.
So when the Asia Pacific CEO clumsily attempted a positive spin on the sacking of the Australia CEO, her: “This is not a train wreck” anthem went down like a lead balloon. In my view, the vibe in the office was very depressed for weeks afterwards. People were likely thinking how to get off the train wreck… That’s because the train wreck metaphor has extremely negative connotations. The definition of the train wreck metaphor is “something or someone that has suffered ruin or calamity”.
How to Communicate Bad News Appropriately
So what should the CEO have said instead of “this is not a train wreck”?
Firstly, be honest, direct and plain speaking yet also mindful of keeping morale steady. Most importantly, keep ‘bad news’ speeches short. For example, the CEO could have said something like:
“Due to very under-performing sales in recent times, we have hired a new Australian CEO to help us get back on track. This means we had to let go [name of CEO]. Many of you have worked closely with the outgoing CEO and we all thank him for his efforts.”
Secondly, spend the majority of the time letting the team know how the problem will be fixed. If appropriate, outline the plan for improvement. The speech should be one part practical and one part inspirational. For example, the CEO could have said something like:
“While we’re in a tough situation right now, the new Australian CEO and I have a well thought out plan to lift sales in the short and long term. It is a three-pronged approach maximising our channels, partners and direct sales. However, we can’t execute the plan alone. We need your support, your continued dedication and your enthusiasm.
"Together, we will reach our revenue targets and we will deliver outstanding value to our clients. I want to finish by saying that while the last few months have been difficult, our current situation is an opportunity to be more creative and to do things differently so we can continue to succeed together.”
Couching a positive with a negative statement is a mistake we all make every day, though for the most part, not as harmful to the psyche as “this is not a train wreck”. Most of us unwittingly say things like “don’t forget your keys” not knowing it’s translating to your listener’s brain as “forget your keys”. Or when you say, “don’t go over budget” – the listener’s mind translates it as, “go over budget”. What we should be saying is, “remember your keys”, and “let’s keep to the budget guys”.
More importantly, we should be careful when delivering bad news to people, especially employees. Rule of thumb: craft a simple message that is short and to the point. Minimise clichés and platitudes as they can be misconstrued. And while you should be completely honest when delivering bad news, it’s best to spend minimal time on the negative. Focus more of your message on how the problem will be solved or what the solution for an improvement plan will look like.