Delivering bad news

Whether it’s telling your manager that you’ve lost a lucrative contract or breaking the news of the death of a colleague, it’s natural to feel nervous and anxious.

But delivering bad news well can set you apart as someone courageous and honest under the toughest of circumstances. Or it can position you as someone who made a bad situation a lot, lot worse. And while it’s never easy to give bad news, there are preparations you can make to ensure you deliver it responsibly, with sensitivity and with clarity.

Emotional intelligence is a key component for managers in this case, and empathy and a capacity to remain sensitive to all personnel affected by an incident. Clear communication, well prepared, will stand you in very good stead for the days and weeks following. Important too, to know that it is not only the people in the very centre of the bad news who are affected – but a raft of family, friends and colleagues who may feel the impact.

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that bad news comes in different guises. It may be one thing to tell your manager that you’ve not achieved your targets and quite another to tell a team of people that a colleague has a terminal illness. Whatever the circumstances, we can do our best to predict how the news will be received, but we don’t always know how people will react.

So, here are five simple steps to help you prepare:

  • Never say ‘I know how you feel’ or (even worse) ‘this is more difficult for me than it is for you’!

We don’t know how others feel or how they will respond – and it’s a great mistake to pre-judge reactions.

  • Be aware of your own state of mind – and acknowledge how the bad news affects you personally. If, for example, you have to tell your team about the death of a popular and loved colleague you will need to take time to come to terms with your own feelings before the meeting. Talk to your family or a friend or mentor first, so that you are grounded in yourself. You can acknowledge your own feelings to the group, but if you have taken a little space to process your feelings, you’ll be much more resilient and therefore a stronger support to those who need you to be strong for them.
  • Decide when to give the news – try and avoid unnecessary delay. It can often feel tempting to put off the difficult meeting, but prevarication is rarely helpful. Do not allow time to elapse or give time for rumours to circulate. Speedy and well thought-out communication is key.
  • Prepare what to say – you may not need a script, but you do need to give some thought to the words you’re going to use and what you want to say. This is especially helpful if you feel emotionally affected by the news and are struggling to think clearly. Come straight to the point, avoiding long explanations. If you feel you need to justify and explain what has happened, you can do this later. But be prepared to be flexible – and watch the reaction. Allow time for a response, and show those involved that you can listen.
  • Choose a discreet setting – a person receiving bad news is likely to feel vulnerable and this will feel compounded if they feel exposed. Ensure you meet in a space that is private and comfortable. They may need time to take in the news so allow scope for this. Switch off mobile phones and other distractions. Where possible, sensitive news should always be given face-to-face rather than by email or phone or text. This shows respect and offers the opportunity to answer questions and be supportive.

And whilst the above advice can be applicable to most settings, there are a few guidelines that you can consider specifically for the work environment:

  • Provide warnings of a forthcoming crisis – if you foresee a project going badly or something going wrong, forewarn people rather than waiting for the inevitable outcome. In the long term it is best to identify problems at the earliest opportunity.
  • Take responsibility and be open– trying to put a positive spin or minimise the situation can backfire and ultimately undermine your credibility.
  • Look for the silver lining – when things go wrong, wherever possible try to find a way forward and think about how to turn the situation around. In a business context when things go wrong, look for solutions rather than someone to blame.
  • Transparency – many leaders operate under the assumption that being open with employees about difficulties is distracting, worries them unnecessarily and so they do their best to cover up. Yet lack of openness often leads to speculation, gossiping and anxiety as employees try to predict the unpredictable.

While it may not be necessary to share every detail what is going on, remember that communication is about sending a clear message. Unless you are clear in your communication, somebody else will do it for you, which means you are no longer in control of what is being said.

And then think about what happens next…

The bad news might cause great discomfort or awkwardness, anger, bewilderment or despair. If you are uncomfortable around someone’s response to bad news it may be tempting to try and say something that will be comforting. In these situations remember that you don’t need to ‘fix’ the emotions of the other person. Simply allow them to express their feelings and show that you’re listening.

Once the news is out, you might also want to consider whether to bring in additional support. For bad news of a redundancy programme, for example, you might want to ensure employees are aware of a confidential employee helpline or access to onsite counselling support. Alongside this, perhaps a friend or colleague who can comfort the person receiving the bad news?

Make sure that all your staff are aware of your confidential employee helpline if you have one in place – and if you are announcing a redundancy programme, for example, ensure that onsite counselling support is available. This is a great support for managers who have to announce either tragic news of death in the workplace, or the start of a consultancy process which will inevitably mean people losing their jobs.

Image: Bad news via Shutterstock