At a glance
There will be occasions in people's professional lives when they have the difficult task of delivering bad news. They may need to deliver it to clients, staff, colleagues and even their managers – in person or remotely, one-on-one or to teams.
While it may be tempting to rush, the delivery may have a dramatic impact on the recipient.
Effective communication skills are essential. What is said, how and where all need to be carefully planned. It is also well worth anticipating and preparing for the variety of responses to the message.
Leadership and coaching expert Mark Herbert says that, in difficult situations, it pays to remember that everyone is human and that kindness is necessary.
“Come from a position of caring, particularly when the message is around redundancy or restructuring,” he recommends.
Herbert, who previously worked in finance, was motivated to move into coaching after witnessing how often people’s interpersonal skills let them down.
“I have seen it happen numerous times to individuals where badly delivered news has dragged their self-esteem down a slippery slope from which they never recover – or it takes them a long time,” says Herbert.
How to deliver the message
People appreciate leaders being authentic and truthful, says organisational psychologist Vanessa Vershaw.
“People need to hear the facts in crisis situations, so they can move their emotions to a more rational space. Improving your interpersonal skills by learning how to deliver clear information authentically allows people to process and understand the why, what and how this will affect them,” Vershaw says.
Avoid “sugar coating” bad news with small talk to ease into the conversation, she says. This will confuse the other person about why the meeting is scheduled, and it can appear disrespectful.
Time and place also matter. When delivering bad news to an individual, it is best to find a time that is convenient for them in a place where the discussion will not be rushed or interrupted. Face-to-face is considered respectful and is preferable to remote communication or email.
Consider how the information is likely to be received. If bad news comes without warning, the shock may make people angry. It's important to let people vent as the first step to healing, says Vershaw.
“Acknowledge their emotions and show compassion. Don’t try to shut them down and move directly to action.”
The fear of having to deal with people’s raw emotions often leads to managers bottling up their own feelings and coming across as robots, adds Herbert.
“I was brought up in a family where it was OK to cry and show your emotions. You can’t be authentic and genuinely care about people without getting upset. There is no winner here. It’s bad being the person receiving bad news, and it’s bad being the messenger,” Herbert explains.
There may be several weeks or even months leading up to a difficult conversation or a major announcement, such as layoffs. As the day approaches, the person tasked with delivering the bad news could be affected both mentally and physically. This is why it is important for leaders to exercise compassion not only to the recipients of bad news, but also to themselves.
How to develop empathy
Developing empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of other people is a key skill.
This does not come naturally to everyone, however. Vershaw has built a career on helping businesspeople become more sensitised to others’ emotions.
“Working in pairs, one person tells a story based on a particular emotion, and the other has to guess the emotion. By identifying and labelling emotions, they start to understand the behaviours that correspond to those emotions and get more skilled at responding appropriately,” explains Vershaw.
For people who have not learned to tap into their own emotions, it can be hard to show empathy to others.
“The default position in business is to focus on ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’, but having a level of connection with people in more challenging times means showing up as yourself. That’s quite scary for a lot of employers, but that’s what it takes,” says Vershaw.
Vershaw gets managers and leaders to rehearse their entire performance, as part of what she calls “mental contingency planning”. This is particularly useful in a crisis, such as when an incident could have an impact on company reputation or is likely to attract media coverage, she says.
Wearing the clothes they intend to wear on the day and going to the actual room where the meeting or announcement will be made, Vershaw coaches them to prepare for different stakeholder audiences. She also asks them to imagine the faces in the audience and anticipate a variety of responses.
“We run through the scenarios over and over again; there might be two or three scenarios per stakeholder group. This way, when a senior figure goes to deliver the news for real, they can step into the situation with more clarity and confidence.
How to get timing right
Is there ever a right or wrong time to communicate bad news? Herbert sticks to a rule of good news delivered on Fridays and bad news on Mondays – with sound reasons behind why these days are appropriate.
“If people are left over a weekend to stew on bad news, you have limited control over their support structures. It’s not the greatest idea to lose control over managing their emotions.”
Delivering bad news at the beginning of the week gives employees time to adjust.
Likewise, Herbert says if a company is looking to restructure or introduce wholesale changes, November and December around the holiday period are best avoided for the same reasons.
How to take a business-wide approach
When bad news affects all levels of a company – threatening to radiate outwards and enter the news cycle – leaders need to consider not only the corporate reputation, but employee morale as well.
“Staff should get no surprises and always know the facts before they see it on the news. I use the analogy of dropping a rock in the middle of a pond. You will rarely understand where those ripples will reach out to and where it will impact,” says Herbert.
If there are going to be redundancies, or people’s hours are being cut, it's important to make sure staff know that what is happening is not their fault. Positive communication requires management to tell employees that they have been – and will continue to be – an asset to the company.
Vershaw believes that for the employees who will continue to work at the company, it’s beneficial to talk about silver linings.
“I don’t see this happening very often, but when you do engage people in a conversation around the upside of a crisis, such as releasing more money for training or development, then they start to move from despondency to hope and more productive working,” says Vershaw.
The golden rule for managing company-wide crisis communications is not to dig yourself into a deeper hole. Come clean, respond quickly and take responsibility for mistakes made, says Herbert.
'Integrity’ is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, but ask yourself: what is the right thing to do? Admit when you have got it wrong and own it.
"If you regret that something has happened and say that you will do your damndest to make sure it doesn’t happen again, people admire that.”