How To Deliver Bad News

Reaching my first senior management position, literally weeks before my employer slipped into the abyss of administration and subsequent liquidation, meant I had something of a steep learning curve when it came to delivering news nobody wanted to hear. Whether it's giving someone a poor performance review grade, informing them of allegations against them that require formal action, or, as in my case, telling a team they were being made redundant, here are my tips for landing a difficult message right first time.

Know exactly what you're saying

Depending on the circumstance, your words may be scripted to some degree, if you're making a formal announcement for example. Even if you're not given a structure for your message, writing yourself some key points in advance will help you - this is not a moment to get stage fright. If you're handed a script to follow, make sure it's clear. Read it through, ideally with a trusted colleague - the words, when you say them, will be your words - you need to understand and feel reasonably comfortable with them.

Don't put it off

Tempting as it may be, procrastination helps nobody if you're delivering bad news. If you are talking individually to somebody, their mind will start racing at the point you ask for 'a word', and often the scenario imagined is worse than the reality. If you're talking to a group, the necessity to proceed swiftly is even more pronounced as gossip, chatter and disruption can run wild at the first sign of something out of the ordinary.

Take appropriate accountability

Whatever message you need to deliver, to the team you're talking to, is yours. You cannot hide behind 'a corporate decision', a company policy, or your boss' opinion. Doing so catastrophically weakens you in the eyes of the people you're talking with, and will only make things more difficult in the long run.

Give it time to sink in

You may notice the point at which your audiences' eyes glaze. You may be able to predict it - announcing consultation for redundancies, for example, people naturally hear the 'R' word and stop listening to the details (which may, in fact, be much less disastrous than the scenario immediately playing in their heads.) Either way, expect to need to allow the people you're talking to, to have the time and space to work through your words, and make sure they know how to seek clarity, where to find more information, and what happens next. 

Anticipate the emotion, and name it

You may be able to predict the emotions that will arise - anger, upset, indignation, fear, worry. Or they might take you by surprise (in my case, on one occasion, telling a colleague she had been selected for redundancy, it turned out to suit her so well she grinned - she had been planning to resign to start a new venture anyway!) It is useful to name the emotion you see - for example, "I'm sure you're feeling concerned now, and I will help in any way I can", or "I can see you are frustrated and upset, but we will work together now to resolve this as best we can". Doing this helps people identify their own emotions, and legitimises them so they can deal with them.

Dealing with the aftermath

In the days and weeks after a difficult conversation, the announcement of consultation or change, dealing empathetically with colleagues is essential. Don't forget the 'survivors', who may feel guilty if not selected for redundancy, for example, and don't ignore rumours. Keep an open door, and keep listening to the 'water cooler' conversations; you will know who to trust to give you the true views of the team. Confronting - sensitively - any gossip in its early stages, will help you manage the team dynamic, whilst ignoring it will feel like confirmation of even the worst of rumours circulating.

Whatever situation you find yourself in, it is never pleasant to need to deliver bad news. However, a bit of advance thinking and the empathy to respond appropriately to concerns, goes a long way to help people understand their situation and start to seek a resolution themselves.