A Leadership Dilemma: Delivering Bad News

A Leadership Dilemma: Delivering Bad News

Dec 12, 2011

When the world is turning at just the right speed and everything is under control, leadership can seem quite easy.

Leading during prosperity may make you a fan favorite, but as I always like to say; the most meaningful relationships are those built in the trenches.

This also is true for earning the trust and respect of those whom you lead.

If you are in a leadership role and you are around long enough you will be exposed to ups and downs. That is just the way the world works, and even in the most high flying organizations, high expectations can make times of average success feel like a great depression.

Since 2007 the US and much of the world has been swirling in a recession/depression (depending on the economist). After several booming years this led many organizations to have to make changes that had seemed highly unlikely prior to the down-turn. This included lay-offs, firings, pay cuts, bankruptcy, increased benefit cost, longer hours, and obviously lower morale to accompany this array of set backs.

I for one have had to communicate nearly all of these as our business, like many others, faced difficult decisions in the effort to stay profitable during these past several years. With this I will be the first to say that it just plain sucks.

I have heard some turn around executives proclaim to enjoy the process of laying people off and making other difficult calls during hard times. To that I will say, anyone who enjoys this is probably missing a heart. However, that doesn’t mean that the changes weren’t necessary. Sometimes the hard decisions that affect the few are the decisions that allow for a greater likelihood of success for the many.

While I cannot say from experience that there is one way to deliver difficult messages, I will say that there are several considerations that you should take when doing so. Here are a few things I strongly recommend when delivering tough news.

  • Be Direct: This is a leadership imperative, but it is just too often that I see people in leadership roles avoid hard questions (and sometimes easy ones). When it comes to giving tough news and feedback being direct actually makes it easier. I suggest getting the tough news out within the first 3 sentences of a conversation. Once it is out there progress can begin to be made regardless of what that progress is.
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  • Be Clear: This will be solved for the most part by being direct but I have actually heard things like “Well it looks like we may have to let you go.” HUH? So do you or don’t you? I know it is tough to break bad news, but leaving things open ended is not the solution.
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  • Be Empathetic: Empathetic yes, sympathetic no. You have to be strong yet human. People all have issues (Family, Financial, Extenuating Circumstances) and when you are eliminating personnel, or demoting someone, or delivering some other type of negative news you cannot outwardly feel sorry for them. This is really hard but a must. If you do have something you can do to help such as a letter of recommendation or a connection you can make for them then let it be known. Nevertheless, do not sit and pine on the news as it won’t solve anything.
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  • Be Available: Not only to those you are delivering the news to, but to all within your organization that the news effects. Leadership must be visible, and when things get tough don’t become a hermit crab. Rather be more available and more visible. Let your people know you are there to listen and discuss. This will provide confidence that you know what you are doing.
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  • Be Communicative: During down times, communication must be up. This isn’t just sending out flowery speeches and emails (although these can help), but it comes down to explaining now that the bad news has been given, here is how we are going to work through it. Communicating a plan can offset the lower morale that bad news can cause. Just like being available, being communicative is key to helping an organization during tough times.
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    Be Ready:: For anything…tough times yield rapid change and turbulent emotions. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, called names, and been threatened. While ideally this doesn’t happen, if you deal with this often enough you will have some interesting encounters. Simply put, when you deliver bad news be ready for anything, however you must stick to your plan.

Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but it is part of a leaders responsibility. If you follow the outline above, you have the opportunity to turn bad situations into stronger relationships.

Good times will come and go, so when things get tough and turn for the worse, how will you deliver bad news to drive better long term results?

16 comments
kathysteele
kathysteele

Wow, great advice. Delivering bad news is never easy but delaying the inevitable is not good for the organization or the recipient. I have come a long way from crying through my first employee termination. It has not gotten any easier but I certainly have become more poised and composed.

MZazeela
MZazeela

Great perspective, Daniel. A good leader shares the credit for the good times and shoulders the blame for the bad ones.

alankay1
alankay1

This list is so important. Transparency is critical, especially when a labour relations lawyer is prescribing a long list of things you can't say to people who have to leave the organization. All tough, but clear decisions can be handled strategically. When I was the GM of a business we used to take the long view for both ourselves and the individuals, i.e., that we'd both continue to be successful. So, once the pain of lay-off was over we'd often look at ways to help the people 'continue be successful elsewhere'. I learned this from a wonderful leader. It taught me that long-term relationships matter and that it was more than simply easing your own sense of pain.

LauLau81
LauLau81

These are great ideas on how to deliver tough news to your subordinates... If these ideas are delivered by the leader, no doubt, he/she is an excellent leader.

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BruceSallan
BruceSallan

I'd add, "Don't Delay!" too...I'd rather get and deal with the bad news asap. I don't want it sugar-coated and I don't want false hopes. I remember an old girlfriend broke my heart but when I asked if there was any chance of our getting back together she said, "Never say never." I held onto to that childish hope - her words - for way too long. I wished she'd just said, "NO!"

Natasha_D_G
Natasha_D_G

I believe the big one in this is empathy. Empathy comes from a place of honesty and makes the news just a tad easier on the pallet. Even with truth we could dress it well so it comes across better.

dbvickery
dbvickery

Outstanding post, Dan. Your recommendations are excellent, and I'm a big fan of "Be Communicative" above all else. Good point about Be Clear, also. Can't imagine saying something as non-committal as "it looks like we may have to let you go". Don't jerk with people's emotions like that!

danielnewmanUV
danielnewmanUV moderator

@alankay1 care and compassion for others doesn't end at the time you lay them off. I have helped a number of post lay off transitions for those that I believed in and who had real value to offer. Thanks as always Alan for the thoughtful response.

danielnewmanUV
danielnewmanUV moderator

@BruceSallan what is the purpose of delay? get it out there...it hurts, but the healing can't start until we lay it on the line :)

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