6 Considerations for Sharing Bad News
What do you want first: the good news or the bad news? We’ve all faced this question before, and depending on who it came from, we’ve answered with an anxious smile or an indifferent shrug. Our reaction was based on an immediate calculation–just how bad could the news be?
From the perspective of the person delivering the news, the offer of “good news or bad news first” is a way of softening the bad news. It’s a small expression of empathy for those receiving the news. Unfortunately, it’s also a tired cliche that, when used to share bad news, can undercut a leader’s professionalism and integrity–especially when there’s little, if any, good news to be shared.
But while the “good news/bad news” line is best kept on the shelf, organizational leaders should still have a plan for sharing bad news effectively. Here are six considerations for doing just that:
Prepare to Share
Bad news has the tendency to arouse bad feelings. Anger, jealousy, and disappointment are all feelings that can cause individuals to react negatively to bad news–and to those delivering it. Leaders can better manage these reactions by preparing to share bad news, which includes:
- Having a complete and solid grasp of the facts surrounding the bad news
- Understanding the scope of the bad news and possible implications for the future
- Anticipating questions that will be asked, and having the answers to those questions
- Scripting key thoughts and responses
Take a Step Back
Sharing bad news is never easy. This is true whether it impacts one, several, or hundreds of employees. So while preparing to deliver bad news should be taken seriously, leaders must also keep the news in perspective. Consider the following to help relieve the stress of sharing bad news:
- It’s unlikely that you are the first person to share this type of news
- The news must be shared, and it’s your responsibility to share it
- Sharing the news, rather than hiding it, will produce better outcomes
With good preparation and the proper perspective, most leaders will be in a position to mitigate conflict that may arise from sharing bad news. Of course, as the great philosopher, Mike Tyson, once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Or, to put it in less violent terms: having a plan is always necessary, but not always sufficient.
Once a leader begins to actually share the bad news, any number of things can happen that could derail even the best plan. Leaders need to understand that this is possible. Then, they must be able to detach from an emotionally-charged conversation, and remain calm in the face of conflict.
This leads us to our next consideration, stick to the relevant facts.
Stick to the Relevant Facts
When a conversation becomes charged with emotions, it can very quickly move into an open argument. The best way for leaders to avoid an ugly argument is to maintain a focus and emphasis on the facts, specifically the facts that are relevant to issue at hand.
Once a leader strays away from the facts and begins making emotional appeals, or addressing unrelated issues, all advantage gained from planning is lost. This also largely precludes a leader from gaining closure on the original bad news. In short, a leader who is led into an emotional argument…isn’t really leading.
It’s not enough for leaders to simply share the facts when conveying bad news. After all, effective leaders should inspire positive action and loyalty in their employees. This can be achieved by providing employees with a vision for the future that moves past the bad news of the present.
Importantly, a leader’s vision shouldn’t ignore realities or downplay potential risks, and it should be flexible enough to provide employees with options. It requires taking an honest look at how the bad news will impact the future of the organization and its employees. Bad news can rattle employees, but a strong vision for the future can provide them with tools to overcome challenges and flourish.
Close with Strength
Finally, a strong closing to the conversation will instill confidence in employees and further support the leader’s vision. It’s common to open the floor to questions at this point if they have not already been asked. As mentioned above–and perhaps more important here–leaders should answer only relevant questions, and the answers should be fact-based.
The closing should be brief. Leaders must not hesitate to name some questions as being outside the scope of a conversation or decline to answer other questions. Ultimately, if the bad news has been communicated effectively up to this point, there should be very few relevant questions.
Good News or Bad News?
At some point, all organizations will have to share bad news. And although conflict can be almost certain, an organization’s culture and leadership will go a long way in determining whether the news will cause damaging conflict. Organizational leaders who have a plan for sharing bad news can mitigate conflict, calm emotions, and provide a path forward. In this way, bad news can inspire employees to raise their performance to new levels. And that is good news.