Leaders need to play many roles. One of the most critical functions, but at the same time challenging to play, is the role of the messenger. There is nothing wrong when a leader must share the good news. People are happy, the good story creates a positive attitude, internal motivation grows, engagement raises, and accountability evolves to new heights. It is different when the news is terrible. One of the development areas for many leaders is to learn how to deliver bad news or negative feedback. There are many approaches out there. Some sound nice, and others are direct and harsh. Like many other people, leaders are investing more time in delivering good instead of bad news. That is normal because we always want to stick to the positive. But the bad news is part of life. We cannot skip or hide them because we do not like the impact they are making. And in some situations, there is only bad news to share.
I have had to deliver bad news many times, and what worked for me, I trained others to use to provide bad news with clarity and no doubt. Here are my six rules of delivering bad news:
Do not lead with an apology
One often seen mistake is when you stand in front of the person who has to receive the bad news and say something like: “Hmmm, I am sorry to tell you that, but…”. Stop doing this. When you share the bad news, you do not doubt it. The information is a fact you only need to share. People are sensitive about bad news, and if they see that you do not look confident while sharing the lousy information, they will turn from defending themselves to attacking you. That can have a worse outcome because you will enter a spiral of personal conflict.
Do not be cursory
Many of us do not like the role of the sad news messenger. And they try to deliver the message short and without any details. When providing the bad news, it is crucial to share some details, why are you sharing this news, and what are the signs that have led you to that decision. Saying something briefly to the person or the group of people you will have to share the sad news will make things worse. In most cases, this scenario leads to the situation – I/We against You/They. It can be easily avoided by sharing enough information.
Do not beat around the bush
When you share the good news, people do not need details. With less information shared, they often rebuild the whole positive picture. But with the sad news, it is different. When sharing bad news, many leaders try to say as little as possible about the negative element and move in a positive direction. Instead of doing that, a strong leader must focus on being straight to the point and delivering what must be shared accurately, quickly, and cleanly. When the leader must provide bad news, the tone set must not be around the blush. People hearing sad news do not want to hear something right; they need to listen to the information and then react to it, according to their level of emotional growth
Do not lie
This one is an often-seen mistake in the recruitment process in the last layers and corporate communication. Leaders and recruiters often hide the real reason for the sad news. From the recruiters’ side, it looks like: “Well, the company has decided to move with another candidate,” and a week after that, you see the same job announcement. As for the leaders, they often lie about layoffs.
A common mistake is, when preparing to lay off someone, many leaders say to the person: “You are a great employee, but because of internal restructuring, your position is not available anymore,” and at the back of the employee, this same leader says to everyone “I am so glad I got rid of this person. Such a low performer”.
When delivering sad news, be straight to the point. Even if you are planning layoffs, do not hide the truth about why you are doing that. Changes are suitable for the company, but a miserably organized communication about the sad news coming can bring more negativity to the company instead of helping it to transform. And the negativity push is led by the leader’s reaction in each situation.
Do not be ill-prepared – think what you are going to say
Many leaders I have seen fail why delivering sad news do not invest time in preparing. The bad news is harmful and makes people look vulnerable and weak. If the person (leader or someone else) delivering the sad news is not prepared, they look soft, not sticking to the position the information is pointing on, etc. To overcome that bias, the one who is sharing the news needs to invest time in preparing, what to say, how to say it, and the impression he or she wants to create while sharing the story. If not prepared for it, people who share the bad news look insecure and weak in front of others and create distrust and a strong willingness to “search for the truth and ignore the liar.” That is why the only word that needs to stick in the head of the one sharing the bad news is preparation.
Sharing information and communicating with others is always a tuff task. And sharing sad news is even more challenging if you do not prepare well for it. If the leaders want to learn how to share bad news so that the others accept it, they will need to follow an agenda and prepare well for the conversation, overcoming seen and unseen threats from the people or groups receiving the news.