How does a Prime Minister tell a cabinet colleague that they’re being fired or demoted?

Only the PM and the Minister concerned know exactly what went on in each of those carefully choreographed little chats in 10 Downing Street yesterday. The rest of us can only speculate and most of us will conclude that the bland official statements put out by each side must bear little relationship to what was actually said. Surely, with over a dozen firings to conduct in a single afternoon, the exchanges must have been brutally direct?

Certainly given the length of his list and the shortness of even a summer’s afternoon, the PM had no choice but to be direct – but in the interests both of respect and efficiency, none of us should ever entertain alternatives to ‘direct’. And direct doesn’t need to be synonymous with brutal, although all too often it is.

There is an unfortunate paradox at work here. If you ask a human being of any stripe (even the pin-stripes often favoured by Old Etonian cabinet ministers), how he or she likes to be spoken to by others, their reply will invariably be along the lines of “direct and straight-to-the-point as long as it’s also courteous, polite and respectful”. The paradox is that although human beings instinctively know how they like to be spoken to by others, most are entirely incapable of putting this into practice themselves. They are incapable of marrying directness and courtesy, of being straight-to-the-point without also being brutal. They think they have to make a choice: direct but brutally so or courteous but also long-winded. This is of course an entirely false dilemma because how can you properly show respect and courtesy to someone if you’re not also being candid and direct with them?

So how can a Prime Minister – or any senior manager – be both candid and courteous when firing someone? Here are some principles which apply to announcing any type of non-negotiable bad news (a refused promotion, a delivery delay, a price rise, a rejected holiday request – or banishment from the Cabinet):

Get the bad news out on the table at the earliest possible point in the meeting, which is to say as soon as you’ve done what’s necessary to give yourself a minimum level of comfort in announcing it. If the person suspects there’s bad news (which, when they’re summoned to Downing Street in the first wave of meetings, they probably will), they’ll thank you for getting it out quickly and not keeping them waiting for confirmation. If they don’t suspect there’s bad news, they will resent you if they find out later than sooner.

Give yourself the necessary level of comfort by stating openly and honestly right at the outset how you feel about having the conversation. (The feelings you announce must be those you’re really feeling; the other person will intuitively recognize the tears of the crocodile.)

Think about what the goal of your meeting is. ‘Telling someone they’re fired’ is not a goal. That’s your job. Your GOAL for the meeting must involve what you want to obtain from the other person by the end of the meeting, or what you want to have produced together. You’ve already decided that the Minister is losing his job. That’s not negotiable. But there’s still plenty that IS negotiable.

Only provide explanations and details once you’ve given the news and once you’ve been clear about what you want to achieve as a result of providing those explanations and details.

The kinds of things which a Prime Minister may want to obtain from a meeting of this kind with a soon-to-be former colleague, which ARE negotiable and which may therefore constitute possible goals for the meeting are:

  • The disappointed minister’s assurance of continued support for the government from the back benches.
  • His or her acceptance of a lesser job and a commitment to tackle it to the best of their ability.
  • The wording of a communiqué to explain the decision.
  • An assurance that at the end of the meeting the Minister nonetheless feels able to walk out and face the press with his or head held high and with dignity intact.

Whether or not they’ll feel able to say to themselves at the end of the meeting “Sh*!t! This is not what I wanted to happen. But I guess at least the PM’s played straight with me.”

If the private announcements within 10 Downing Street yesterday respected these principles, they may have sounded something like this: “Boris, sometimes the mantle of office weighs very heavily on me and today is such a day.I’m almost certain that what I have to say to you today will cause real pain but I don’t have the luxury of allowing such a consideration to influence me. I’ve decided that I need you to step down from your post at ……. and return to the back benches. I will explain to you exactly what’s led me to take this decision, both from a government standpoint and from a party political standpoint. My staff have followed my instructions in preparing a communiqué which doesn’t stint in its praise of the job you’ve done and I’ll show you the draft.

What I’m hoping for at the end of our conversation is that you tell me you’ll be leaving Downing Street today with your dignity intact and your head held high; and that you’ll reassure me that despite this blow, I can count on your continued support for the government from the back benches.

How do you react to that, Boris?”

Alan H. Palmer was educated at Oxford and INSEAD and has spent most of his career working for international advertising agency groups in London and Paris.