Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Rereading Bad News: Compliance-Gaining Features in Management Memos

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Rereading Bad News: Compliance-Gaining Features in Management Memos

Article excerpt

Methods of conveying bad news have received surprisingly little attention considering their broad application in the business world. Widely accepted is advice offered by textbooks for delivering written bad news: an indirect organizational pattern, including buffer, reasons, implied refusal, and positive ending. Because the bad news formula originated in the pedagogy for consumer sales writing (Adair, 1986), its usefulness for analyzing in-house communication may be limited. Managers must frequently announce inconvenient changes that convey "bad news" to employees, and the writing choices for these messages may be different from those used with customers outside of the organization.

In this study we show how compliance-gaining theory can help to explain some of the content and style of two kinds of memos that deliver bad news from managers to subordinates. In the first section of the paper we review pertinent research on bad news, most of which has dealt with the organizational patterns and tone of bad news messages. Then we present findings from research on compliance-gaining theory which identify some of the message and contextual features that might influence the writing choices made in bad news memos. In the second section we apply the compliance-gaining principles to two kinds of real-world memos, reminders and announcements of changes, to exemplify how the features elucidate the texts. Finally, we assess the contribution of compliance gaining in analyzing the memos.


Research on the bad news formula typically has examined the placement of the bad news in letters and the letters' tone. Judgments about the efficacy of an indirect organizational pattern have been mixed. Jablin and Krone (1984) looked at the organization and content of employment rejection letters sent to college students and found that the principles described by the bad news formula, an indirect organization with some form of explanation, were seen by recipients as clear and personal. Brown (1993), reviewing 500 employment rejection letters, recommended a personal, humane tone but rejected flattery or ambiguity in attaining it.

Many researchers have preferred directness in presenting bad news. Salerno (1988), in a study of his own job rejection letters, ruled against buffers, judging them either "insincere or merely ritualistic", and Brent (1985) reported that readers, especially business readers, find the indirect arrangement transparent and manipulative. Limaye (1988) also found that over half of editors rejecting journal articles, eschewing conventional advice, placed the bad news in the first paragraph. Furthermore, he found no significant relationship between the placement and the recipients' perceptions of the sender. Other researchers such as Suchan and Dulek (1988) have objected to the bad news formula because it fails to recognize the complexity of the audience and context of a message. In general, researchers have agreed that achieving a personal tone is important in conveying bad news, but the organizational pattern of the message is not essential in attaining the tone.

Another method of analysis that researchers have applied to bad news is Brown and Levinson's politeness theory. As a branch of pragmatics, politeness theory describes strategies used by speakers to protect the listener's image, or save face. Depending on the power and personal relationship between the speakers, and the degree of negativity of the message, speakers employ various linguistic strategies to mitigate a potential threat to the listener (Brown & Levinson, 1987). These strategies, originally identified in oral communication, have been applied to written documents. Campbell (1990) found that including reasons in bad news messages served as a politeness strategy. Also, Hagge and Kostelnick (1989) applied linguistic politeness to sample letters taken from an auditors' firm to illustrate the frequent use of stylistic "passives, expletives, nominalizations, and hedging particles" in mitigating potentially threatening interactions with clients. …

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