The importance of breaking bad news the good way

“I am passionate about literature, always have been”, says David Patient, who was recently appointed professor of leadership, people and organisations at Vlerick Business School. “Perhaps the most exciting teaching experience I’ve ever had was a course on leadership and Shakespeare, for which I used the play Henry V.” David’s love of language and communication is a common thread throughout his career. He joins us from Católica-Lisbon School of Business where he was professor of organisational behaviour.

David Patient

Why is it so hard to get it right?

“I studied law because law is about using language, which has always fascinated me”, David says. “After my MBA I worked in sales and marketing for IBM Canada, which, at that time was going through an interesting but disruptive change process. That’s when I realised the importance of leadership, effective teams, change management and negotiation – topics in the field of organisational behaviour. I also realised my interests lay in communication.”

So, for several years he worked in corporate writing and business communications training. “I was intrigued by how bad news is delivered. To me it seemed as if the knowledge we had was not being used. We knew what to do and we could teach people how to do it, but what puzzled me was why they didn’t do it?”

Contextual and psychological barriers

This became the focus of his Ph.D. thesis: how bad news should be communicated and the obstacles affecting that communication. “At that time there hadn’t been done much research into the psychological reasons for failing to deliver bad news in a good way. Taking an organisational justice perspective, I looked at several aspects, such as moral decision making, emotional intelligence and empathy, the lack of which could be barriers to good communication.”

It’s the topic he’s studied most extensively over the years – the delivery of bad news and how to overcome the obstacles, which are often contextual and psychological. “Breaking bad news is especially relevant in a medical context, however, the same principles apply to communicating bad news to clients, or situations of employee feedback, e.g. regarding promotions or budget allocations.”

Organisational justice in the workplace

He’s also been looking at how principles of fairness or organisational justice can be used to establish legitimacy, to motivate employees and to help companies through difficult times. “Inevitably, leaders have to deal with negative outcomes and how people respond to challenging situations is greatly affected by whether they feel they’ve been treated fairly”, David explains.

Other research examined various aspects of dealing with multiple generations in the workplace, for example how older workers and employees are motivated differently, by different approaches than their younger colleagues. “Here again I tend to look at various types of fairness, some of which are particularly relevant for managing, motivating and connecting with older staff, some of which are more relevant for the younger generation.”

In addition to conducting academic research, David has taught in a number of areas related to leadership, focusing on aspects of communication. “I’ve already mentioned bad news and difficult conversations, but I’ve also worked with students and companies on topics such as decision-making, persuasion, team effectiveness and dealing with change, not as an organisation but as an individual.”

Challenges of diversity and technology

Several trends in the workplace make communication an exciting area of research. “With increasing diversity,” says David, “communication becomes more challenging as there is no longer a shared understanding of its tacit rules. It’s more important than ever to pay attention and try to understand each other.”

He expects technology is also going to have a major impact, offering a lot of scope for research: “How do you manage teams when interactions are increasingly virtual? How, then, do you reach the understanding and connection required to building trust, which is a key factor for organisations? Also, looking 20 years down the road, AI will be taking over a lot of what we currently do and teach. So, it’s a matter of identifying what we humans are still better at, i.e. connecting, emphasising, communicating.” He pauses and asks: “But what will happen when a lot of the feedback we receive comes from machines, when AI becomes part of the team? How will that impact organisational justice, for example?”

People are what make me tick

David is very much a people person. “Research can be surprisingly lonely sometimes. What I enjoy the most is the final days of working on a paper with colleagues, when you can almost finish each other’s sentences and it’s no longer possible to distinguish who did what, when you know what the others know and how you can complement each other. It’s absolutely thrilling, this feeling of working together towards the deadline as if you are a single organism”, he says, brimming with enthusiasm.

Its people and its strong culture of collaboration and learning from each other are also what attracted him to Vlerick in the first place. “From the very beginning I sensed it would be a welcoming and supporting environment”, David recalls.

Teaching taken seriously

“Moreover,” he continues, “Vlerick has a clear vision, it doesn’t want to be all things to all people. It also takes teaching very seriously, which is not as obvious as it may seem. The colleagues I’ve met so far are all passionate about their teaching, they are innovative, setting high standards for themselves. And finally, Vlerick has a very international outlook, which is reflected in its student population and, increasingly, in its clients for executive education programmes, as well as in its faculty and staff. I feel most comfortable and valuable in such a diverse setting, where I can use my international experience.”

Looking ahead, he adds: “I like to complement what’s being done at Vlerick with programmes, courses and research in the area of communication, and I look forward to starting new research collaborations, sharing my experience with Ph.D. students as well as learning from them.”

Brussels, capital of the comic strip

In a fortunate coincidence, David is based at the Brussels campus. “My hobby is reading, and I am a big fan of graphic novels. So it looks as if I’ve landed in the right place”, he concludes, smiling.


  • Director, CUBE Research Unit, Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, Lisbon, PT (2017–2019)
  • Elected Representative-at-Large at the Board of Governors of the Academy of Management (2016-2019)
  • Founder and chair of the International Committee for Organisational Behaviour Division (2014)
  • Associate Professor in Management, with tenure, Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, Lisbon, PT (2014-2018)
  • Assistant Professor of Management, Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, Lisbon, PT (2006–2014)
  • Ph.D. in Organisational Behaviour, University of British Columbia, CA (2006)
  • Lecturer in business communication, Simon Fraser University, CA (1999-2006)
  • Freelance corporate writer, Vancouver (1996-2000)
  • Marketing representative, general business marketing, IBM Canada Ltd., Calgary, CA (1989-1993)
  • MBA, University of British Columbia, CA (1989)
  • Bachelor of Laws, University of London, UK (1986)

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