Getting the news out about an upcoming restructuring, merger or acquisition, layoff, or other major organizational change can be a challenge. No one wants to experience having their name ‘pop up’ in a new organization chart that is widely distributed online before receiving any direct personal communication from their boss. Imagine if you showed up at the office and discovered that the reason why you cannot access your email is not because of a glitch with the IT department but because you have been dismissed, and no one had the courage to tell you. Organizations and managers have a responsibility to share such news in direct and supportive ways that enable employees to understand what is changing and how they will be affected.
Why is it so hard to deliver bad news to others? Perhaps you like to be the ‘nice guy’ and find it difficult to say no, or disappoint others. You may fear that you will become the target of anger and retaliation. Being the bearer of bad news can be emotionally upsetting, challenge our self-image, and disrupt relationships. Sometimes we face situations where our own beliefs and feelings, values and principles are in conflict. Caught in the middle, we might feel a bit ambivalent, or defensive, about the decisions made by the executive team, and yet we are the ones asked to deliver the message to employees.
Bad news is defined as information that has an adverse effect on how a person views the future, and impacts how people think, feel, and behave (Bies, 2012; Buckman, 2005). How we deliver bad news affects how people interpret information, and how they cope. It not only impacts the relationship between managers and employees, but may negatively impact the company’s reputation.
Some of us have not had much experience delivering bad news. Many of us have received little or no training on how to deliver bad news to our employees. If managers are typically inexperienced and unprepared to deliver bad news, what might we learn from other professionals like doctors, nurses, and law enforcement officials that might help us with this difficult task? Using a structured approach can help you deliver bad news to individual employees in a way that will result in less anger and blame, provide a greater sense of fairness, engender greater respect for you as a manager, and help people deal with change (Bies, 2012). Consider a process with three stages: prepare, deliver, and follow-up that can help you be successful in handling these situations.
- Practice. Rehearsing before delivering such news can help you appear more credible to your audience. Rehearsal can take the form of mental rehearsal, or actual practice. Try practicing at home in front of the mirror to gauge your own verbal and nonverbal behavior. According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, our body language affects how others see us, and when we are being inauthentic, our nonverbal and verbal cues are misaligned.
- Manage the setting. Arrange to have the discussion in a quiet and private location. Minimize interruptions. Turn off the cellphone, computer, telephone. Consider meeting with the employee in his or her office, rather than calling them into your office. Take your time.
- Manage your own reactions. Delivering bad news can be emotionally upsetting for managers who may feel guilty, conflicted, and focused on avoiding the situation. You need to be aware of, and manage, your own emotional reactions before sitting down with an employee. How can you keep calm, professional, and genuine?
Deliver the Message, Build the Relationship
Communication takes place on two levels: the message content and the relationship. Breaking bad news is an opportunity for you to communicate the facts of the situation and provide the rationale for decisions that have been made. It is also an important opportunity for you to pay attention to the relationship. How you maintain the respect and dignity of the employee in the conversation and convey trust may have a significant impact on your credibility, employee morale and motivation, and your relationship with employees that may continue into the future.
- Provide some advance warning. Just like good drivers who signal their intentions to other drivers as they prepare to make a left turn, managers need to prepare people to hear bad news. Providing advance warning of bad news provides some predictability that can help offset the shock of bad news. You can start the conversation by saying, “I have some difficult news I need to share with you.” Easing into the topic gives people a chance to prepare themselves psychologically for what comes next.
- Be sincere. Face-to-face delivery of bad news matters. When bad news is delivered verbally, in person, or over the phone, people will perceive you as more sincere. Face-to-face communication encourages more immediate feedback that can help you clarify the message, reduce misunderstanding, and convey trust.
- Deliver with clarity. Give information in small chunks. Be clear. Repeat the message. You don’t want the information you are attempting to convey to be misinterpreted. Beware of corporate ‘doublespeak’ that may confuse the message in an attempt to make the situation seem less terrible. Saying one thing, while meaning another is a sure way to undermine your credibility. Test for understanding. Summarize the information you have presented.
- Tell the truth. Employees expect managers to tell the truth, and truth is essential to building trust (Bies, 2012). Lying creates intense feelings of distrust and outrage. Be direct. Give people the facts. Don’t sugarcoat the message. Help people understand the situation. Identify the mitigating circumstances. Explain the rationale for decisions that have been made.
- Provide an adequate account. People expect a clear, valid and reasonable explanation or justification for managerial decisions and actions. Doing this well can make it less likely that employees will blame you as the manager. Inadequate accounts, on the other hand, can be demotivating, resulting in less cooperation on the part of employees, lowered productivity, and potentially increasing the risk of retaliation.
- Explore, empathize, validate. Encourage employees to vent. Remember, emotional reactions are normal. Validate the person’s experience in a genuine manner. You could say, “This is not what you wanted to hear” and “I can understand how you feel that way”. Acknowledging feelings helps people feel validated. Avoid getting into a debate about the merits of a decision that has already been made. Listen. Invite feedback.
Communicating bad news may be the first in a series of events that need to happen to ensure a smooth transition to a new reality. Your role as a manager is to continue to provide the support and direction needed to help people manage this transition. In the shock of the moment, people may not process or remember all of the details. Follow up with employees by inviting feedback and questions, being available, and focusing on next steps.
- Invite questions. Invite feedback. Ask, what questions do you have? Gently probe to explore feelings if people have not expressed them.
- Focus on the next steps. What can you do to help employees to focus on the future? How do you provide a sense of hope for the future? What is going to happen, when, and how? Adapting to stressful events is somewhat easier if they are predictable or controllable.
- Be available. Invite employees to come back to you another time with more questions and concerns.
Managers play an important role in setting the stage around the need for change in organizational life. Not all change is life-altering. Taking adequate time to plan and prepare before delivering bad news can increase your confidence and your skill in having these conversations. Paying attention to the content and delivery of the message helps employees understand the rationale for change, maintains trust, and reduces anger and blame. If you act with integrity, people may not like the message, but they might respect the messenger. And that might mean they are more willing to work with you to make the changes that are necessary to create new possibilities for the future.
About the Author
Kate Sikerbol, PhD (Candidate) is a facilitator with Queens IRC and an organizational consultant and coach with extensive experience in business, healthcare, government and higher education. Kate has designed and delivered change management programs, leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based and appreciative approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and executives. She is passionate about creating capability for change in teams, organizations, and communities.
Kate is the lead facilitator for Queen’s IRC Change Management program.
Bies, R. J. (2012). The delivery of bad news in organizations: A framework for analysis. Journal of Management, Vol 26, 1-18.
Buckman, R. (2005). Breaking bad news: The S-P-I-K-E-S strategy. Community Oncology, 2, 138-142.
Cuddy, A. (2012). Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://www.ted.com/speakers/amy_cuddy.
Gallo, A. (2015). How to deliver bad news to your employees. Harvard Business Review, March 30, 2015.