I would forget it fain, But oh, it presses to my memory, Like damned guilty deeds to sinners’ minds. I would be glad to forget about it, but it weighs on my memory like sins linger in guilty minds. ~William Shakespeare
It happens every day, from negative performance reviews, to massive employee layoffs to budget cuts, bad news is almost a daily phenomenon across all industries and sectors. Unfortunately, the delivery of bad news remains one of the most difficult tasks facing leaders, moreover it is often caused by emotional reactions or undeveloped skill sets.
Sometime in your career you will be faced with delivering bad news. When you are put in this circumstance, consider these nine ideas. They may very well help you as you confront the inevitable challenges.
- Be Prepared. Unlike a good Boy Scout, most leaders tend to stumble in this first step. Because our tendency is to avoid or to put off the task, this step is tough. However, when it has been determined that bad news must be delivered, managers have to work to compartmentalize emotions and prepare themselves with the skills needed to deliver bad news in the best and most humane manner possible.
- Send out “smoke signals.” Like Native Americans once did, today’s bad news messengers have to provide advance warning that bad news is coming. Too often leaders give lip service to transparency and therefore when it’s really needed, they are not believed. However, transparency and periodic updates on sensitive matters help signal the possibility of bad news. Cardinal Rule: Bad news should never come as a surprise.
- Seek Help. Before sharing the news, managers are silly not to consult with key influencers and organizational stakeholders to seek support. If you have a trust relationship with these folks it can be an opportunity to gain some insights into issues you might have overlooked. This step will hopefully help you gain a consensus, as well as respect and inform key constituents of the situation. The lesson here is to never stand alone!
- When in doubt write it down. Or, as it is often said in times like these – Document, document, document any and all communication, actions and memos created before the actual delivery. Simply stated, be proactive and think ahead about possible outcomes. Cover your butt!
- Remember, the medium is the message. Leaders should determine the appropriate delivery medium — email, phone, in-person meeting, etc. However, it is critical to remember, the more serious the bad news, the more face-to-face time is needed.
- Practice makes perfect. Because this is a challenging task, managers should practice, practice, practice before the actual delivery. This should absolutely be done individually or with trusted friends or family members in an effort to practice messaging and body language.
- Say no to procrastination. Delaying the inevitable will make it worse. Do not delay the delivery of bad news. Delays can be costly, as conditions may continue to worsen. Bad news delayed is bad news compounded.
- Be clear, be honest, be direct. Furthermore, be succinct; say it simply remembering less is more. Promise yourself to conclude the message and dialogue with a positive or hopeful statement. Attempt to find and provide solutions as well as any “silver linings” to soften the blow of the negative impact or perception of the news.
- Don’t hide. If for no other reason than remembering that they are watching and listening, scrutinizing and judging. Get out of your office and answer questions, talk to people, be confident and exude that confidence in the decision that developed the message in the first place. If you can’t do this or you are afraid of what they will ask, you sure as hell shouldn’t have made the decision and delivered the news in the first place. If you are hiding, you are neither honest, genuine nor credible; and I guarantee that you will be perceived as such. Remember, perception is nine-tenths reality.
I believe that by following these nine steps, managers can effectively communicate with employees, improve morale for those not directly impacted by the bad news, and renew people’s confidence in your ability to lead. Remember you are communicating to human beings. Your ability and character are being tested and are on display.
Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws. ~Douglas Adams