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How to Deliver Bad News

Posted by Louellen Essex on January 30, 2014 in Communication, Leadership, Managing Difficult Situations

Sometimes a leader has to carry out the dreaded task of conveying information no one wants to hear. Layoffs, budget cut backs, and undesirable change can produce the need to deliver bad news to both individuals and groups. By employing sensitivity and tact, however, leaders can cushion the blow and avoid unnecessary damage. Consider these communication guidelines.

Don’t delay.
Once the decision is made, move quickly to communicate. If the rumor mill gets wind of the bad news, the message will be distorted and you may find yourself facing a hostile, misinformed audience. Make sure they get accurate information in a timely manner.

Give the background leading up to the situation.
Take time to lay the groundwork. Carefully review events that have caused the current situation. Allow the other party some time to focus on what you are saying, rather than abruptly leading with the bad news statement. Avoid ambiguity. Share as much information as you can so the receiver of the message can understand the context for the current circumstance.

State the bad news.
Don’t beat around the bush. Resist any temptation you may have to sugarcoat the message. Make a clear, direct statement that will not create confusion.

Indicate who was involved in the decision-making and the process used.
Make sure the audience knows who made the decision. Was it a group of individuals who gathered in a task force? The leadership team, after analyzing the budget? The Board of Directors? You? Outline the options considered and give the rationale for which one was chosen. Be as transparent as you can by demystifying what went on behind the scenes.

Demonstrate empathy.
Let your feelings show. Those affected need to see that you care about the adverse consequences of the negative news. If you neglect this part of the message, no matter how well developed your logic may be, the individual or group will react to the seeming insensitivity.

Indicate the longer-term, more positive impact, if there is one.
If a tough decision now will lead to a brighter future down the line, explain the “silver lining.” However, be careful not to invent a flimsy rationale to smooth things over, thereby damaging your credibility when the benefits you describe don’t pan out.

Talk about how the decision will be implemented.
Don’t leave the receivers of the message hanging. Anxiety will only increase when they don’t know what to expect. Outline the next steps with as much detail as you can, including a timeline. As part of the action plan, make sure personal support is available to those who may experience the most negative impacts; i.e. losing a job.

Be prepared to answer questions.
You may not get much dialogue at the time of the announcement, especially if the bad news comes as a shock. Questions may come later when the reality sinks in. Think through what the concerns will be and develop an appropriate, well thought out response.

Delivering bad news is never easier, yet good leaders know it is part of the job. Develop a measured approach that includes detailed, direct, and clear information as well as compassion. While staff may not like the content of the message, they will respect the messenger for the approach that was used.

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex