Delivering Bad News

“Bad news”…most leaders dread delivering “BAD news”. And the dreaded news can be anything. It can be a message that you have to deliver about not meeting a productivity goal or expectations. It can be a termination call from HR that you have to inform your employee as a manager. It can be a disagreement between you and a customer.

Delivering bad news is always tough, and it can be more challenging when you do not agree with the decision, especially in the case of termination, for example. This situation happens because you have to satisfy two parties, upper management and your team. Often this may take a wrong turn if you become too deeply involved in the discussion, or you may even admit that you do not agree with the decision. This type of approach leads to more disappointment and the employee may begin to question the decision.

In such situations, a good leader/manager always tries to walk the thin line between supporting upper management and satisfying the employee that all the procedures have been followed to reach the necessary decision. For this, you must be precise regarding why the decision has been made. If you yourself have doubts, then you cannot deliver the bad news appropriately. Your words may say on thing, but your body language may say another.

To counter this as well as gain confidence, there are certain approaches or tips to keep in mind before delivering bad news.

Prepare yourself for the conversation
When delivering bad news it is necessary to prepare yourself for the discussion, how you want to say it, and what reactions you may get from the other person or your employee. Often you have individuals that become upset and want to argue with the decision. As a leader you need to take a sensible approach, using your emotional intelligence skills. It is important to control your emotions, be aware of the other person’s emotions, and try to diffuse the situation rather than fuel it. Preparing for possible reactions and considering your response help. We often use pre-framing tools for this and similar situations. “Pre-frame” what you want to say, how you want to say it, and how you want to be; considering qualities of great leaders from previous inspiring tips shared, such as – humility, respect, honesty, etc. Pre-frame acknowledging the person’s emotions, listening, and being respectful.

Keep in mind why it’s essential in the first place
Recall that transparency is one of the great leader values previously shared. This is about understanding the news to be delivered and being open and honest so that your body language and your words are synchronized. This can only happen if you feel that the news is justified and must be delivered. Gather all the background information and data you need if you are not the initial decision-maker. You have to leave no stone unturned before delivering the bad news.

Be direct, compassionate and empathetic
You do not need to – and should not – sugar-coat the news. Doing so may create ambiguity. Be direct and use clear language to deliver the message, but also remain as compassionate and empathetic as possible. Start with the point, explain the news, and remain calm. However, in many situations, acknowledging your feelings, dislike of the circumstances or conditions, or understanding of their reaction are appropriate.

Allow no debate and focus on the future
Don’t allow the conversation to become a negotiation if there isn’t going to be any, like “But why? Or why me?” Do not fall for the trap of debating and instead focus on the news you have to deliver. Depending on the situation, once the news is delivered and the person (or persons) has had time to process the information, take a break and then help them move forward. Provide information and resources if needed or use coaching skills for them to realize the resources they already have to handle the news. Also, it is often beneficial for the team to brainstorm together to plan solutions for future improvements.

The key is maintaining the humanness of the situation. We have been involved in situations that have been handled well and others that took a wrong turn quickly. For example, during a mass layoff at a client’s a few years ago, everyone was emotionally distraught and supporting each other – respect, dignity, compassion, empathy and acknowledgement of the other were honored, but also clarity and transparency were upheld. There are many ways that bad news can be delivered while upholding the dignity of all involved.

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