Four things you should avoid when delivering bad news

When the CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, had to tell his employees last month that there were going to be widespread job cuts due to COVID19, he did it in a way that received widespread praise. He was transparent, empathetic and his letter was a benchmark lesson on how to deliver tough news. You can check out the full letter here.

Given the current environment, it’s possible that the coming months may bring times when you also need to deliver bad news to your employees. As a leader, having to communicate tough news is one of those ‘not-so-nice but necessary’ responsibilities that’s part and parcel of the job. But it is one that you can step into with courage and compassion if you know how.

Importantly, there are some things you should avoid doing (and some that you should do instead) when you’re delivering bad news. So this week, The Leader’s Digest has compiled some ‘watch outs’ and ‘do these things instead’ tips for whenever you need to be the bearer of bad news with your team.

But first things first…

Before I dive into what you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to delivering unfavourable news, there is one thing you should be focusing on, even before you have these uncomfortable, but necessary conversations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, it’s probably the most important thing that you should develop in your leadership practice.

And that is building trust with those you lead.

More and more studies are telling us what we already know: that trust is the most critical currency in leadership and high-performing teams.

There are two types of trust – affective trust and cognitive trust.

Affective trust is trust based on emotional bonds and interpersonal relatedness. Another way to look at this is to view it as ‘warmth’. It is how someone feels about your intentions. You can build this sort of trust by getting to know your team on a personal level, letting them get to know you as a person, being clear about demonstrating your values and showing vulnerability in the right context.

Cognitive trust is trust based on reliability and competence. Another way to look at this is by considering how well someone thinks you will act on your intentions. You can build this trust by delivering on your promises and doing what you say you will do. You can build it by being transparent with your intentions and decisions – and keeping your word. Keep confidences. Act with ethics. Do the right thing, even when it is the hard thing.

This matters now because the way you deliver bad news is a crucial moment where you can either build these two types of trust, or erode them.

So what SHOULDN’T you do? Here are four things you should AVOID when delivering bad news:

What to avoid #1: Winging it.

This ain’t the time to just say whatever is top of mind! Words matter, and you are more likely to say things you’ll regret if you just shoot from the hip. Going into an interaction prepared will lower your anxiety and reduce the chances of stuffing up your communication.

Instead:

Prepare. Focus on the facts and the key messages. What is the best mechanism to deliver this message? Where and how will you deliver this message that demonstrates your own, and the organisation’s, values? What questions will they likely have? Is there a way you can prepare the recipients for the message? Sometimes, bad news comes out of the blue. But most of the time, there is a way to prepare people. In his letter, Chesky had already told the team that tough times were ahead: “When you’ve asked me about layoffs, I’ve said that nothing is off the table.”

What to avoid #2: Sugar-coating it.

It can be tempting to sugar-coat the bad news or try and make it sound less bad than it really is. Dancing around the mulberry bush, soft soaping your message or trying to tell someone too soon after delivering bad news to “look on the bright side” is NOT ideal. Confusing messages don’t help.

Instead:

Be direct. You can be empathetic at the same time as stating clearly what the decision is, what the options are (if there are any) and why the decision has been made. Cut to the chase and deliver the bad news. Which leads me to my next thing to avoid when delivering bad news…

What to avoid #3: Omitting an explanation of why the decision has been made.

It seems obvious, but many leaders forget to outline in enough detail how and why they’ve come to a decision. Explaining the process that you went through is an important component of delivering tough news. There are a multitude of studies that show that people are more willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the decision-making process was sound. It’s called procedural fairness and it’s pretty important to consider when there’s bad news about.

Instead:

You might say something like: “Here’s the process that was followed, the people we spoke with, and where things came out. This is why we chose this outcome to move forward with.” People might not like what you have to say, but they are more likely to understand and accept it if you are clear about why it is the way it is.

What to avoid #4: Not managing your own emotions

This can be a significant trap when it comes to delivering bad news. A lot more of what we communicate is via our body language and our facial expressions than through the words we say. An example of not managing your own emotions effectively might be to come across as cold, insensitive or robotic. Another way is to respond to anger with anger yourself. Or becoming more upset than the person who is on the receiving end of the bad news! I knew of one HR Director who had a reputation as the smiling assassin, because she would smile when she was letting someone go. People are likely to have a range of emotions when receiving bad news – and that’s OK. Don’t make it worse by not being in control of your own.

Instead:

The best leaders are emotionally intelligent ones. See Daniel Goleman’s work on how to develop your emotional intelligence. This includes being aware of your own emotions and managing these effectively, especially in high-stress situations like that of delivering bad news. Running through the situation with a trusted colleague and ensuring that you are emotionally and mentally prepared for when you deliver the news is helpful. Be empathetic and compassionate when delivering tough news. One of the things I like the most about Brian Chesky’s letter was that he was empathetic. He showed deep gratitude to his employees and demonstrated that they were valued through his words and tone.

You might not have anything as dire as Brian Chesky, or The Warehouse Group’s news this week of hundreds of lay-offs, yet it’s likely in our current climate that some bad news delivery could be on the cards. We have a mountain to climb as we recover from the economic devastation of this pandemic, and we need our people on-side as we navigate where to from here. We have far more chance of achieving this if we handle the tough communication pieces with skill and empathy.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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