Delivering Bad News

BAD NEWS IS everywhere — in the news and the office. Part of a leader’s role and responsibility is to deliver bad news. While announcing layoffs, closings, salary reductions, loss of expected promotions, major clients or business can be extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable, employees (and often clients) need to be informed. The delivery of bad news needs to be handled professionally, carefully and consciously.

As a professional coach, I can’t overstress that avoiding delivering bad news is not an effective strategy. There is a high cost to silence. Rumor mills take over, which can lead to office paralysis, bad mojo and morale spiraling out of control. It’s not OK for employees to be recipients of their bad news through the grapevine or left speculating about the worst.

Here are my coach’s tips to more effectively deliver bad news:

  • Be prepared. Take the time to reflect, identify and prioritize your key talking points. What do you need to say? It is vital to convey your message clearly and concisely. Keep your message short, precise and simple; don’t overwhelm people with details in your initial delivery. This is not a time to be misunderstood. Prepare so you can be ready for questions you anticipate will be asked.
  • Deliver your message in person. Common courtesy dictates that people should be treated with respect. Yet it astonishes me how many companies deliver bad news via broadcast e-mail! No one wants to get bad news in broadcast. It’s impersonal, makes people feel devalued as human beings and is simply poor form.
  • Don’t make excuses, beat around the bush or bring up something irrelevant. Convey your message in a straightforward and respectful way. Give people credit for their contributions and genuine effort.
  • Don’t ignore emotions — yours or theirs. These situations are emotionally charged. Controlling your emotional reactivity during the delivery of the message is important. Though you can’t control how they react, you can control your emotional behavior. Be mindful of being calm and be prepared to use self-soothing strategies. Understand that feelings are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. In the end, feelings just are what they are. Acknowledge their feelings, your observations and respond appropriately. Most people don’t expect you to change your position. What they do expect is to be heard, seen and validated.
  • Practice your delivery with someone (a trusted adviser or coach). You want to identify any nonverbal messages you may inadvertently be sending that might be misinterpreted. Nervous habits like hand-wringing (indicating anxiety) or putting your hands on your hips (which makes others think you are lecturing them) are things to look out for. You want to use a steady tone and make eye contact. If you don’t make eye contact, people think you are hiding something. Practice your responses to the expected (and unexpected) questions and reactions.
  • Give people time to hear, digest and process the news. Suggest they leave early if they need to collect themselves. Individuals react to bad news in a wide variety of ways. Demonstrate your care, concern and sincere empathy for whatever they may be experiencing. Have a plan for what you or the company can do to help them through the difficult transition period.

Leadership has never been more important. How we manage the most difficult of situations can make all the difference.