If you've never had to deliver bad news to others in your organization, you've been lucky. But most likely such luck will not be yours throughout your professional career. At some point you will bear responsibility for informing individuals, teams, managers, or colleagues that something untoward if not downright devastating has happened or will happen. How you deliver such news matters.
While the traditional advice is to delay bad news with a lengthy preface, such a strategy seems to us only to intensify the stress. Although most messages need some kind of an introduction, a particularly bad message needs to be stated early and clearly.
If it falls to you to deliver bad news, work out the following elements first, work them into your plan, and practice your delivery.
Email? Voicemail? Face-to-face? Letter? Consider the message and its recipient when selecting a medium. In general, the more personal the message, the more personal the means of communicating it should be.
It's not unusual for large organizations to communicate some kinds of bad news via mass email or voicemail. Many will broadcast a change in practice or situation when the message needs to reach many people simultaneously or quickly. But for messages pertinent to one or a few employees, arrange a face-to-face meeting.
Know your audience, what their contributions have been, what their expectations are, what their shortcomings may have been. Will the bad news be a surprise? These considerations help you to craft words for the message.
Keep in mind, too, that emotions are likely to underline the interaction for both messenger and recipient. You may not agree with the decision you are obligated to communicate or you may be distraught with its substance; still you must temper those emotions with your responsibility as bearer of bad news. The likely emotional state of the receiver, too, should help shape the face-to-face. Recognize emotions, validate their existence, leave room for them to be expressed. But do not let them cloud or obscure the message.
It's all about the message. Make the lead-in short:
- "For several reasons, our group is going to miss the next milestone by at least three weeks."
- "We've just finished making budget cuts, and we've reduced your department's travel budget by 90 percent effective immediately."
- "As has been discussed in previous meetings, the company has decided to focus exclusively on B2B sales. This change requires a realignment; we'll be closing this department at the end of the quarter."
Then, wait. Give the recipient time to absorb and understand.
Only after stating the message should you provide details or background or focus on next steps, resolutions, contingency plans, expectations. Be open to questions and answer them.
Be prepared to furnish a written document of explanation when it's desirable or necessary to do so.
While in many situations expressions of empathy or even apology may be in order, take care not to suggest that the message could be retracted. If it's final, make it final.
But that doesn't mean it's good to close cruelly as the George Clooney character in the film Up in the Air often does. "I'm gonna need your key card," he barks after firing one employee.
If you can say something positive, do. If you can offer appreciation, do. Human to human, even with the worst of news, is best.