Question: How do you tell your staff bad news? I find it very difficult and unnerving.
Answer: That is a great question. I recently read an article on INC.com by Tim Donnelly. It has some great ideas. Take a look:
Delivering bad news can be the worst part of the job for any manager. That’s not because the truth, on its face, is difficult to convey. It’s the anxiety of the possibility of handling it poorly – and knowing doing so can worsen the impact on your employees, their productivity and your whole company. Finding the best way to cushion the blow on everything from layoffs to salary freezes to personal reprimands is something that troubles even the leaders of countries’ top companies. No one likes having the painful conversation – but dealing out the bad with the good is a part of the job as a manager.
“Those aren’t easy topics to deal with. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t have a very good idea of how to do it and they mess it up,” says David G. Javitch, an organizational psychologist, author, leadership specialist and president of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. “Often times their intention is good. They dig a grave for themselves when they deliver bad news.”
While there’s no way to completely pass off a layoff announcement or similar news as anything less severe, there are ways that will treat your employees fairly and make sure they still respect your leadership. Experienced business communicators offer these tips:
Delivering Bad News to Your Employees: Don’t Avoid the Negative
One of the biggest problems with delivering bad news is procrastination. Avoiding talking to your employees until the last possible minute will only exasperate their reaction, says Dana Bristol-Smith, the founder of Speak for Success; a business communication consulting firm. Some companies make the mistake of not providing feedback or coaching to their employees along the way, such that when the situation reaches a boiling point, the only option is a firing, she says.
“I think it just really comes down to people are uncomfortable with confronting any sort of negative behavior or bad situation,” she says.
If a single-employee situation needs to be addressed, it’s better to get it out of the way as soon as the problem arises rather than letting it metastasize, which can create a toxic work environment.
If it’s a company-wide announcement – such as layoffs, mergers, or tough financial news -you should take charge and address the issue quickly. If you don’t, you open the door to churning of the rumor mill, which could spread false information and sow discord among the staff. “Try to address it while it’s a smaller problem rather than let something fester for longer and longer,” Brostol-Smith says.
Delivering Bad News to Your Employees: Be Clear and Direct
Brevity is often a big problem for managers who are delivering bad news to employees. Too often they overdo it with the explanations, spending a lot of energy building up to the announcement, giving advance statements hinting at the news or circling around the hard truth in the middle.
“Their audience is wondering what the hell is going to happen,” Javitch says. “If you give too much information, you lose the directness of message.”
Keep the message brief, direct, and don’t sugar-coat it. If you try to wrap the news in soft language that attempts to lessen the impact, your employees may not understand the full weight of the announcement, Bristol-Smith says.
Evasiveness, euphemisms and reassuring language may make you feel better, but they’ll strike the wrong tone with your staff. It’s not the time to test your humor skills either, says Anett Grant, president of Minneapolis-based Executive Speaking.
Experts also say repeating the message several times helps it sink in. Javitch recommends framing the message by starting with a short positive statement (things that have been going well in the company that year) followed by the negative statement and then a change statement that explains what is going to be different as a result of the bad news. That way employees understand what the change – layoffs, salary freezes or the like – will allow your company to do in the future.
Look out for three more parts to this answer coming up! In the meantime, feel free to ask Pamela your questions.