5 tips to help you deliver bad news

“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news”

The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles wrote that in the fourth century BC, before employee relationship management was even a thing.

He never had to stand in front of 300 people and tell them that their jobs were being moved to Nantwich. Or that their generous overtime rules were about to be significantly restricted. He never had to break it to Dave from marketing that he was surplus to requirement.

When there’s an unpopular announcement to be delivered, it often falls to HR to lift the veil on it. As tempting as it is to fire an incendiary email out into the ether and batten down the hatches, we all know it’s best done in person.

Sophocles was right, no one’s going to love you for this. But being loved isn’t the objective.

What is the objective?

Tip 1 – Get your objective nailed

When you’re sitting on the internal comms equivalent of a hand grenade, it’s tempting to simply throw it and take cover. But the first mistake a lot of people make in this situation is to not properly think about what the objective is.

What do you want to happen? What’s the desired outcome for the organisation? For the employees? And for the key stakeholders? Write these down in a list before you start drafting anything and refer to it constantly to check your tone and content support what you want to achieve.

Tip 2 – Own it, by knowing it

Mistake number two, trying to wing it. Dropping bad news on the fly vastly increases the chances of miscommunication. There’s an uncomfortable degree of unpredictability involved, and you might say something that complicates the whole affair.

Bottom-line, don’t try it.

You need total clarity on the facts of the situation. Know what you’re going to say. And more importantly, what you’re not going to say, particularly where you feel there’s a good chance the conversation may become heated. As the messenger, it’s your job to stay cool and professional.

Tip 3 – Less is more, get to the point

In high pressure situations like this, it’s easy to slip into the role of mollifying, rationalising, Mr Brightside spin doctor. You know when it lands, the news is going to do so with a painful clang, so you ramble and dissemble to evade having to get to the point.

There’s no sustainable way to spin bad news into good news. All you end up doing is confusing the issue and drawing the whole process out while you explain your explanations. Plus, a rambling build-up and lack of assertiveness in your delivery increases the chances that the recipients will react angrily.

Your news needs context around it, obviously. People expect to be told ‘why’. They want to know that the decision hasn’t been arrived at lightly, without due consideration. But if you start with that, there’s a danger that nobody’s really listening as they’re waiting for the clanger to drop. So get the ‘what’ out of the way first.

Tip 4 – Empathy, silence and facts

How do you deal with an angry reaction? If it’s tipping over into outright aggression, they need some time to process, to calm down, so promise to catch up with them in the near future and remove yourself from the situation with well concealed haste. 

But sometimes it’s best to simply let the recipient vent. Don’t disagree with them. Don’t argue with them. Don’t take it personally, they’re just expressing their emotions at the shock you’ve just dealt them, and they have a right – within reason – to do so.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The best thing you can do is this:

STICK. TO. THE. FACTS.

If you’re delivering the news face to face, to a group or even one-to-one, it’s critical to try and anticipate the objections that will come flying back. But keep in mind the list we made at the beginning of the process.

Do not add additional information unless it’s part of the agreed facts. It’s tempting to try and put a positive spin on things, but you need to stick to your key messages or you risk muddying the issue and offering false hope.

Tip 5 – Do what you say you will

You didn’t ramble off script or apply an inappropriately positive spin, so you won’t have made any unwise commitments. Nice work. Bring it to a close by explaining very clearly what happens next.

Then, and this is the important part, follow through on everything you promise.

The human brain is naturally more pliable to negative experiences, so for the people in the room, this is the thing they’re going to remember about you for a long time– no pressure.

That’s why you need to own it.

Delivering bad news isn’t one of the perks of the job, granted, but handling it with transparency, fairness and respect builds your credibility with the workforce, while getting the job done increases kudos with leadership.

Good luck. 

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