Good Strategies for Delivering Bad News

Delivering bad news is a lot like delivering mail. You need to sort it out before you pass it around. The last thing you want to do is blurt out “we’re laying off a third of the staff” without first doing the proper preparation and planning. Sharing a difficult announcement is a delicate task, and it requires distinctive tactics to soften the blow. Here are a few tips that will help you deliver bad news in a good way.

bad news

Don’t Over-Sweeten the Pot

It can be very tempting to sugarcoat bad news in an attempt to mitigate the sting. And while you do want to soften the blow, you don’t want the bad news to be so deeply camouflaged no one realizes what you're actually telling them. Trying to pass off a rotten peanut as a piece of candy is not really giving bad news; it's disguising it. For example, if you're reducing lunchtime from an hour to a half an hour, wording the news as, “we’ve developed a program to help you lose weight” is not going to cut it. A much more honest way to present this, while still adding a pinch of artificial sweetener, would be to say, “I have something to tell you that you’re probably not going to like, but unfortunately, it has to be done if we're going to stop missing deadlines. From now on you will get a half hour for lunch instead of a long, boring hour.” By wording the news this way, you're not only keeping things light (as light as they can be), you're also explaining the reason for the decision.

Be Willing to Answer Questions

Even if you provide a logical explanation for why your company is laying people off or why your staff won't be getting Christmas bonuses this year, people are still likely to have a slew of questions. The worst thing you can do in this type of situation is tell them this is just the way things are and they need to accept it. You need to be prepared to answer their questions honestly and accurately. If an employee asks, “How can we be losing money when we just landed the Sherman account?” you'd better have reasons and data on hand to support your decisions. Otherwise, it's going to look like you're just making excuses, or even worse, being deliberately dishonest.

Don’t Play the Blame Game

When delivering bad news, the idea of blaming someone else can be enticing. More than one manager has told his employees pay cuts are completely out of his hands or making employees work on Saturday is a decision made much higher up. Even if this is actually the truth, you will lose credibility with your staff if they think you have no control over what happens to them. So while taking the blame out of your hands may boost you up in the short term, in the long run it's going to do more harm than good.

Don’t Leave Them Hanging

Dropping a bomb of bad news on your employees may leave them stunned. They might not be able to think beyond the moment and will need time to fully absorb what you have told them. But you need to think ahead. You have to share the bad news, but you also need to let them know how that news will affect them in the future. Are the pay cuts or lack of bonuses just a temporary measure, or are they a permanent one? Will employees who are being let go receive a severance package? Is there any chance they'll be hired on again? Will they get a good recommendation? Even if your employees are not able to think about these details right away, it won’t be long before questions come to mind. As the bearer of bad news, it's your responsibility to inform them of how to proceed from there, and arm them with the tools they need to carry on successfully.

No one likes to deliver bad news. But as a manager or leader, it will inevitably be a part of your job. Following these tips might not help you dread the task any less. However, it will help you become better at it; and your employees will definitely appreciate your talents for honesty, preparedness, accountability, and tact.

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