How Great Leaders Deliver Bad news To Employees Without Drama
If you ask leaders what’s the hardest part of their job, I’ll bet that 90% of them will say some version of delivering bad news to employees. Everyone likes good news, but sometimes leaders are asked to deliver bad news to their staff.
As leaders, we must sometimes deliver bad news. And we occasionally fail the communications test even with the best of intentions.
If you lead a team of people, you’ve likely had to share important news with them at some point, possibly many times over. Whether the news is positive, negative — or a little bit of both — appropriately conveying the message can sometimes be difficult.
Are you nervous about giving bad news to others? Well, you’re not alone. Delivering bad news can be a difficult task.
Giving bad news to employees is one of the most crucial roles you play as a leader. For most leaders, it’s also one of their least favorite tasks. Delivering bad news can be quite unpleasant — especially when you’re a caring person and you’d like to soften the blow.
Unfortunately, delivering bad news is a skill that is rarely taught in college, business schools, or company-sponsored training.
Deliver bad news right — it can be empowering and open up a world of new possibilities. Deliver bad news wrong — the human toll will be devastating (ex. Low morale, high risk of losing critical staff, lower profits, negative impact to your organization’s brand).
The best leaders are warriors — they step up and willingly do whatever it takes to lead their team. This includes delivering bad news if necessary.
One way or another, the bad news will get out. The question is not whether but how to communicate it. Follow these guidelines to make a potentially painful experience more positive, both for you and for the people you’re addressing.
Tip #1: Don't Bend The Truth
This is a leadership imperative, but it is just too often that people in leadership roles avoid hard questions. When it comes to giving tough news and feedback being direct actually makes it easier.
Don’t push it under the carpet. Get the tough news out within the first 3 sentences of a conversation.
Once it is out there progress can begin to be made regardless of what that progress is. When something has gone awry, immediately come up with a plan for communicating it, even though it will be uncomfortable, embarrassing, awkward, even painful.
The news that you probably have to share most often isn’t necessarily good or bad; it just means things will be… different.
Moreover, the one thing you can bet on is that whatever the news is, it will be interpreted differently by different people. Some employees thrive on change and will naturally be excited about the possibilities it can provide. Others may be more pessimistic, or perhaps, have had a bad experience in the past that makes them more wary of change.
As humans, we’re wired to avoid confrontation so we delay, distract, and confuse; our conversation goes in circles as we try to avoid the inevitable.
Just be straightforward and honest. If you haven’t delivered bad news before, write out a script and practice it first. Even something like letting an employee go from your company could be practiced first so that you’ll have the confidence to deliver the info in a straightforward way.
In this age, most people are astute. They understand spin.
Whether the bearer of bad news has to give a speech or have a one-on-one conversation, the person should accurately explain the situation right away. So the message should be concise and to-the-point. If not, the messenger’s trustworthiness will take a big hit. Plus, a cover-up always leads to worse repercussions.
Whenever the news is bad, the stakes are high.
And, you wouldn’t approach any other high-stakes presentation without knowing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, would you? This is not the time for ad-lib remarks or for shooting from the hip. This is the time for carefully chosen words and a confident delivery.
Let’s be honest, delivering bad news sucks, especially when it’s to people you care about.
However, there are ways to present things in the workplace that allow employees to keep their emotions in check and their dignity intact. Being direct, honest, are empathetic are key. If they have questions you can’t answer, assure them you’ll do your best to get answers for them as quickly as possible.
Tip #2: Get The Facts
Be truthful and never say anything that you can’t substantiate. For all too obvious reasons, people today have grown distrustful of leaders in both politics and business. So, it’s even more imperative for you to lead with integrity. Tell people what they need to know as objectively, fairly and completely as possible.
Do not sugar-coat or downplay the bad news. Before you say anything, make sure you get the facts first.
In delivering the bad news, the best way to make sure everyone remains level-headed is to keep the conversation based around the facts, not conjecture or emotion. So arm yourself with all the facts — whether or not they support your position. Make sure you review the facts thoroughly and understand them.
While decisions are made at the highest levels of leadership, too often it is the mid-level leaders who have to deliver the message of the decision to others.
Since you may not have been present when the decisions were made, you may not have the full context of the reasoning behind the announcement. Make sure you ask your direct manager for talking points to include in your communications and don’t be afraid to ask any questions you may have. Your personal reputation as a leader will definitely take a hit if you appear to be confused or uninformed.
Understanding the root cause of bad news — and speaking honestly about it — is a critical step in securing leadership credibility.
Honest communication about the cause of bad news does not undermine employee faith in leadership, mainly because such an assessment is constructive and self-critical. Effective leaders will communicate bad news with a sense of responsibility, focusing within on decisions and strategies rather than external explanations such as market forces.
Although it’s essential to get all the facts, don’t use it to unconsciously delay delivery of the bad news.
Putting of the bad news until later only hurts everyone; it helps no one. So gather the facts as quickly as you can so you can deliver the bad news as soon as possible. Your employees will be more willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the reasoning was fair. Begin with the news, and then share the reason behind it.
As a leader, you need to be able to evaluate the consequences from every stakeholder’s perspective.
If you can help the people affected comprehend the situation from a holistic, long-term perspective, it’s easier to build understanding and acceptance. Tempting as it may be, do not understate the damage. If you have a plan to address or resolve the situation, do it. It can be a relief to hear word of sympathy in hard time.
People who are successful in delivering bad news do so because they speak with clarity.
They don’t hide or distort the facts. They don’t just dump a lot of misunderstood statistics onto the audience. Good messengers think in terms of key takeaways. In fact, they highlight them.
Tip #3: Don't Babble
During down times, communication must be up. This isn’t just sending out flowery speeches and emails (although these can help), but it comes down to explaining now that the bad news has been given, here is how we are going to work through it.
Don’t joke around. When delivering bad news, cracking jokes is disrespectful and comes off as rude.
It may be difficult for some people to avoid because it’s natural to want to lighten the mood in uncomfortable situations with humor, but you must avoid doing this at all costs to avoid coming off as insensitive.
Your words and sentiments are only as believable as you are.
Make sure your message is in consistent with what your audience already knows about your values, actions and commitments. In public speaking, knowing your audience in advance is critical. In times of uncertainty, it’s quintessential, regardless through what channel of communication.
Basically, corporate speak prevents clarity and creates misalignment between what company leaders intend to communicate and what employees perceive.
Often, business jargon creeps in when company leaders feel uncomfortable admitting they don’t have immediate answers to an issue. While it may be tempting to obfuscate, you’re better off explaining that tough challenges may take a long time to fully understand and even longer to fix.
Blabbling is killing your communication. Sometimes, we deliver bad news, like a TV news show.
We don’t mean to reveal confidences or be a gossip, and yet we tell others details to feed our ego. We overplay the bad news story with too many or the wrong people. We may take a small problem and create a larger problem, since too many well-meaning people begin to fix, advise, and counsel, when in reality they should not be involved at all.
Delivering bad news is stressful. As a result, you may end up falling into a pattern of sentences with lots of clauses and short on pauses.
Rather than succumb to a long-winded ramble, try speaking in short sentences that are personal and conversational. By speaking in short sentences, you’ll give your ideas out in bite-size pieces and not in an overflowing pour. And you’ll feel more relaxed, particularly if you exhale gently after each sentence.
Tip #4: Focus on The Future
Do not make promises that you may not be able to keep or give assurances about the future that may not hold true. But give people reason to believe that their work has meaning, their contributions have value, and their prospects have potential.
Leaders see possibilities when others see only failure, and people need hope now more than ever.
Show people how everything your organization is doing to address the situation or to respond to the crisis is in alignment with its values. How your organization acts and how you personally act under pressure tells people more about what you really value than anything else you say. Use this time as a teaching moment.
Allow some time for the news to be absorbed and understood after the initial messaging.
Some staff may want to speak with you privately about their individual concerns. Once that has happened — shift your focus to the future and moving forward. Don’t have conversations that revisit the decision as this can be misunderstood by staff as opening the door for renegotiation.
In addition, committing to fix the root cause of a problem is the most critical step in effectively delivering bad news.
The commitment to address the underlying problem is essential not merely because it resolves the issue but because it restores lost trust. Aggressively responding to the root cause of a problem, in a transparent way, restores trust in leadership and boosts productivity, as well as morale.
Make sure the last topic during the conversation is about positive steps forward for the future. Try to end the discussion with hope and steps for action.
It’s natural for people to experience anxiety and fear after hearing tough news, as it introduces uncertainty. To mitigate this, clarify what happens next for everyone involved. Using a calm, confident voice, list clear action items for yourself and those affected.
Say what you’ll do next. This is the pivot point where life beyond the bad news begins. Great leaders are especially good at this.
The natural corollary of taking responsibility for the bad news is to say how you’re going to turn it around — and people expect and want that from their leaders. That’s why you’re sitting in the leader chair.
Opportunity presents itself in the shadow of adversity.
Leaders should present bad news as a challenge and leverage the underlying failure as a means for inspiring collective action. Problems beg for problem solvers, and bad news can rally employees together for better results. Leaders should extend this offer and give serious consideration to the solutions put forward.
Tip #5: Don't Play The Blame Game
When a leader doesn’t try to squirm out from under, though, and instead takes full responsibility for whatever he or she has done, or — and this is important — for whatever the company has done, it sends a powerful signal of confidence, honor and courage.
It can be tempting to delegate the delivery of bad news to others.
And although there might be times when it’s appropriate for someone else to deliver bad news (i.e. if the CFO has to deliver bad news about the company’s finances), you as the leader need to be present and actively involved. And it’s very likely that there are times when you need to deliver bad news yourself. So accept your responsibility as a leader.
Leaders take responsibility right away for a problem.
There are great examples of leaders who immediately took responsibility for their decisions or their firm’s mistakes. For example, think about the many recent breaches of cyber-security and the leaders who immediately took ownership for the errors and apologized for those mistakes to their consumers.
As a leader, you are always responsible. This principle is incredibly important for good management.
Everyone makes mistakes, and the people in charge must be in charge and take responsibility for failure, even taking responsibility for the failure to supervise somebody else — so there really is no excuse.
Instead of deflecting, choose to take responsibility for fixing the problem and wrestle it to the ground. Instead of spreading blame, own and address the issue.
The more challenging the situation, and the higher the stakes, the more urgent it is that you behave in a trustworthy way. Yes, you have to be extremely tough-minded on the issue. That’s non-negotiable. You must ask critical questions and face the brutal facts of what created the situation to begin with.
People don’t want you to coddle them. They want you to lead.
It’s important to note that people in today’s companies are savvy and observant. They’re plugged into their leaders’ behavior and they’re paying attention. For the most part, they can spot a half-truth or an attempt to deflect blame — or any variation in between. And they’re even quicker to notice the signs of an untrustworthy leader when they’re immersed in the vigilance of a powder keg situation that can feel as dire as a fight for their very survival.
Own it. Tackle it. Hold people accountable. Then, fix it.
No matter the reality of the situation, it’s a good idea to claim responsibility for addressing the situation. When you own the problem, you can own the solution too. Enlist people to help so they can feel engaged in the solution with you. Instead of spreading blame, spread accountability.
Tip #6: Be Genuine
When the time comes to deliver the message, try to be authentic and compassionate, and treat the other person with respect and dignity. Don’t try to “sugarcoat” the truth; it’s best to be forthright and honest about what’s happened, and about what you’re going to do to make it right.
You have to be strong yet human. People all have issues.
And when you are demoting someone, or delivering some other type of bad news you cannot outwardly feel sorry for them. This is really hard but a must. If you do have something you can do to help such as a letter of recommendation or a connection you can make for them then let it be known. Nevertheless, do not sit and pine on the news as it won’t solve anything.
Remember that although you might have sat with this bad news in your head for a while, your audience is hearing it for the first time.
Be respectful of your audience — even if it’s an employee who you are transitioning out of your company — and be empathetic to their situation. Recognize that they are facing a whole bunch of emotions all at once and are being forced to process the bad news immediately while you have been thinking about it for a while.
Leaders should be more empathetic when addressing their employees with bad news.
There may come a time where a team member needs to be let go or demoted. Leaders should take into consideration how this news will affect that person’s life. When handling such matters as this, leaders should make sure they are not in any rush when sharing the news. They should allow the other person to respond and adjust to the new announcement as rushing to leave this conversation is seen as quite insensitive.
Show that you care. Make an “I statement” expressing how you feel, using specific emotions such as sad, regretful, embarrassed, worried, etc.
Acknowledge that the decision is difficult for the receiver and explain that it is also tough for you. Convey empathy and genuine concern for everyone affected and allow yourself to be vulnerable with your own feelings. Your intention is what matters most, and it will shine through.
Whatever you say, your underlying message needs to be both credible and caring. And then put your organization’s actions behind it.
If you repeat words and phrases that the other person uses — “angry,” for example — it shows that you’re listening, that you understand, and that it’s OK that they feel the way that they do. For example, you might say “I understand that you’re angry, and you have every right to be.”
Tip #7: Set The Scene
Unless you have to deliver bad news to a group, choose a private setting for your conversation. Privacy allows the other person the freedom to respond and cope in a way that’s comfortable for them, which is a key part of helping them to move forward.
If the conversation you need to have is a difficult one, or the stakes are high, the setup matters more than the pitch.
Sometimes privacy is exactly what you need. And sometimes, having a difficult conversation in a public place can provide an element of safety, calm, and decorum. Consider your context carefully. If you’re in an office, shut the door — and make sure your conversation is private. If you’re in a public place, consider how your listener might take the news.
Are you in the right environment for every reaction?
That public place might help keep things from boiling over, or you may end up causing a scene at Starbucks. Consider the how — and the where — of what you have to say. At all costs, avoid text or email when delivering bad news. How would you feel if you were notified by text that your job was eliminated? As sad as this is to say, it does happen.
Make sure you deliver bad news in a place that is private and secure. Location matters.
This would allow the employee to process what is being said and minimize embarrassment or fear that comes from the feeling of being pried upon. At the same time, think about your own safety.
When considering how to give bad news, choosing the right environment to ensure that the news is delivered as effectively as possible is key.
The right environment plays an impact on the overall tone and the way in which the news can be received. If you are speaking to a large group of people, select a space where people can be comfortable and sit to explain to them what has happened.
Choose an appropriate setting — ideally, an office or conference room with a door that closes for privacy.
If being physically in the same room isn’t possible, a video call will at least bring you face to face. Sitting down will let them know you’re not trying to rush through this, and putting away your phone signals that they are the most important person in your world right now.
Delivering bad news is difficult. But as a leader, it’s unavoidable. Use these tips to help you deliver bad news to employees without drama and when it’s necessary to do so.
Leading during prosperity may make you a fan favorite, but the most meaningful relationships are those built in the trenches.
If you are in a leadership role and you are around long enough you will be exposed to ups and downs. That is just the way the world works, and even in the most high flying organizations, high expectations can make times of average success feel like a great depression.
Part of being a leader is being able to communicate in good times and bad.
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but leaders do it without flinching because they know it needs to be done. They know it is in the best interests of the people they serve. And, that’s the hallmark of a real leader, isn’t it?
Keep in mind that the news you deliver isn’t your fault.
But when the person hears it, they will partially dump all of their anger or frustration on you. You’ll be less stressed about delivering the news to your employees if you separate yourself from the message.
You can’t make bad news less painful, but being clear, empathetic, thoughtful, and patient while delivering bad news may help ease the pain.
No matter what your role is, you’ve probably had to deliver some form of bad news before. The way that you communicate during these tense situations can affect your career in any number of ways, which is why learning how to communicate this effectively is so important. What do you think? I’d like to hear from you. Share your thoughts and your personal experience in the comments below!