How to Give Bad News to Your Boss: Career Lessons from Joseph

Blog / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Bad news

Just as there is no ominous music, gathering of clouds, or any other sign to announce very bad events in our lives (except in the movies), so a good day begins as any other. Joseph was going about his day as he had for almost 5,000 previous days in prison. It had been two years since the chief cupbearer had returned to his position, forgetting about Joseph. Perhaps Joseph had settled back into the pattern of work he’d kept before he saw that opportunity. Like many people today, he may have assumed that this undesirable position was his long term assignment, and refocused his work in this direction.

But there was a commotion going on in the palace of Pharaoh. Pharaoh had had a dream, actually two dreams, and none of the wise men on his staff were able to tell him what these dreams meant. Had the chief cupbearer not remembered what had happened two years earlier, Joseph would likely have had some new prisoners to take care of! But the chief cupbearer finally remembered the message he was supposed to have passed on, and said to Pharaoh,

“Today I am reminded of my shortcomings. Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was impaled” (Genesis 41:9–13).

So Pharaoh sent for Joseph.

Put yourself in Joseph’s position for a moment. After all of this time, he had the opportunity for release. He was bypassing all of the bureaucracy, going right to the top!

Joseph handled this delicate encounter in an amazing way, providing insight for us in our 21st century business environment. We look briefly at three aspects of this meeting: its timing, how Joseph dealt with his own needs compared with those of Pharaoh, and how he delivered bad news to an authority figure.

1) Timing Matters

Consider the timing of this meeting. Joseph’s opportunity to stand before Pharaoh came about because the chief cupbearer had forgotten the prisoner’s request until just this moment.

What would have happened if the chief cupbearer had brought the information to Pharaoh two years earlier? It seems unlikely that Joseph would have had the same opportunity. The cupbearer, having just been released from prison, would likely have been on tenuous ground with Pharaoh. Would Pharaoh have listened to him? Would he have done something? Two years earlier, Pharaoh did not need someone to interpret his dreams, but now he did. The opportunity for Joseph came because of Pharaoh’s need, not because of Joseph’s plight. So in business today, timing—which is often out of our control—is critical.

Bill Gates comments on the importance of timing in his own career in his book, The Road Ahead.

“My friend Warren Buffett, who’s often called the world’s greatest investor, talks about how grateful he is to live at a time when his particular talents are valuable. Warren says if he’d been born a few thousand years ago, he’d probably have been some animal’s lunch. But he was born into an age that has a stock market and rewards Warren for his unique understanding of the market.

“Football stars should feel grateful too, Warren says. ‘There just happens to be a game, where it turns out that a guy who can kick a ball with a funny shape through goal posts a fair percentage of the time can make millions of dollars a year.'”

Gates goes on to talk about his own upbringing on the Eastside of Seattle, with supportive parents and his education at a private school where he met his co-founder Paul Allen, at a time when the computing industry was just coming alive. The rest is history.

2) Aim to Serve

We have already seen that Joseph is good at interpreting dreams, but he takes a humble approach here. Joseph has already told Pharaoh that he cannot interpret dreams, but God can. Then, after listening to his account, Joseph tells the pharaoh what the dreams mean in a straightforward way, saying, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” (Genesis 41:24). He doesn’t ask about his own fate. He doesn’t negotiate for his own position. He addresses Pharaoh respectfully, directing his energy to solving Pharaoh’s problem.

Examining the conversation Joseph has with Pharaoh, it is evident that Joseph was prepared, polite, and honored the office of the leader of the country. Joseph’s focus was on answering Pharaoh’s questions and addressing the problem at hand.

The basic issue here is whether we view people as valuable human beings, treating them with dignity and respect. The name “Human Resources Department” doesn’t help, since it suggests that people are tools to get the job done, not human being with whom we work. It is commonly said that “knowledge is power” and in this case, Joseph had the knowledge. If he revealed all he knew in front of Pharaoh and his officials, his advantage would be gone. Perhaps he would be back in prison.

But Joseph appears to have ignored this pressure completely and simply laid out what he thought Pharaoh needed to know. He told him the two dreams meant that God had shown Pharaoh the future. There would be seven good years of harvest followed by seven drought years so bad that the good years would be lost in the difficulty of the famine. The two dreams about the same outcome confirmed the urgency of what was certain to occur, and that it was God who had revealed this certainty to him.

Joseph might well have stopped at this point. He had answered the question Pharaoh had raised. But what he said next might be even more surprising in light of the way business is often carried out today. We see no evidence that Joseph was using his knowledge to gain an advantage. Nor did he try to hide information from those who might have used their relationship with Pharaoh to advance their own position. Joseph went on, without any guarantees, and laid out a plan for Pharaoh. He said nothing about his own position.

3) Approach Bad News with Honesty, Humility and Courage

We should also notice this was potentially devastating news for Pharaoh. The coming famine would put his leadership and power at risk, and some authority figures don’t take kindly to bad news. Joseph likely had some insight into how the Pharaoh might react in this situation because he had spent time with two members of his staff, the cupbearer and the baker, when they were in prison two years earlier. Had I been making this presentation, I would likely have had shaky knees and a catch in my throat. But Joseph told it straight, just as he understood it from God.

Perhaps to his surprise, Joseph found that Pharaoh also responded with courage. Rather than fight or dismiss the bad news, he listened carefully not only to Joseph’s analysis, but to his proposed action as well. It is easy to miss the courage of a leader who receives and acts on bad news. In fact, we read that Pharaoh’s officials joined in supporting the plan, as it says, “The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials.”

There is a big lesson here. All of us at some time are faced with the question of what to say to someone in authority. The situation is made more difficult when we know what we have to say is not what they would want to hear. It may be tempting to say nothing out of a desire to protect ourselves. But if we believe that we are called to our positions, and are here for a reason, it is important to speak the truth clearly, respectfully and wisely.

Many leaders respond negatively to bad news, but Pharaoh listened carefully to what he heard and acted on it. He also demonstrated best practices. I had the opportunity to ask Alan Mulally, when he was CEO of Ford, how he deals with bad news. He said “There is no bad news. It is just the way it is. If you don’t know, it you can’t act on it. So you need to create a climate where you can get any kind of news.”

General Peter Pace (former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), offered this advice in speaking up to authority. “Always tell the truth as you know it, but know that you don’t know all of the truth. It is important to have some humility when you are speaking the truth.” Joseph seemed to demonstrate this.

The outcome was uncertain when Joseph stood before Pharaoh at just the right time. Joseph focused on the solution to Pharaoh’s problem, not his own. Pharaoh responded as a good leader should to this bad news, acting on the news rather than burying it.