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Moneyball’s debate about how to drop players has lessons for business

Moneyball – a great film with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. It’s about a baseball club that cannot compete by buying players and finds another way. Brad is the general manager and Jonah his newly hired assistant. In one great scene, the pair discuss dropping players, and Jonah voices much of what we all think when we have to deliver bad news. Jonah believes it should take a lot of preparation and time. Brad says: “These are professional players. They understand. Be clear, be quick, and be out.”

Delivering bad news is hard because it is conflict. No one likes conflict. It is stressful, requires energy, and keeps us up at night. There is a lot to be said for Brad’s guidance, but it needs a little more finesse. Consider the following:

Our words help us understand our mindset. Mark says: “I need to have a difficult conversation with John.” Mark’s mindset needs to change. Maybe the conversation could be ‘demanding’, or ‘sensitive’, or ‘confident’. What we think becomes what we do.

  • The Power of the Pause: In conflict situations, we have a tendency to speak quickly, take shallow breaths and fill the silence with repetition. Remember that ‘silence is golden’ and allow the person to process the information and to ask questions. By delivering the bad news with more words and repetition, you risk causing confusion, frustration, and even anger.
  • SBI: The Situation-Behaviour-Impact model is a simple and effective way to structure what you want to say (search ‘SBI model MBM’ online).
  • ‘Tough on the issue, kind on the person’: People don’t come to work to do a bad job, so it is normally the issues that are the problem and not the people. This doesn’t mean that we can accept poor performance. It does mean that instead of ‘You’re an idiot, work harder’, it is more, ‘These are the results we need. What is stopping you from delivering them?’.
  • Know your style: Thomas-Kilmann identified five default behaviours when we are in conflict, from avoidance to competition with three in between. Know your style because this is how you will act under pressure in conflict and by knowing how you are likely to act, you can adapt. I suggest an online search: click on images to see the five styles. You’ll probably see which one you are, and then you can research it a little further.