Tough Talk: Bad News Delivered the Right Way

Communicating Bad News The Right Way

It's the rare executive who actually enjoys speaking before groups of people, even under the best of circumstances. Public speaking routinely ranks highest on people's list of fears. Add the pressure of having to deliver bad news to good people, and even the most confident executive can stumble.

Every employee has a horror story about a manager's inability to relate bad news. One new manager tried to quell questions from anxious employees about their jobs by denying the obvious: he'd been hired to make changes. When that statement was met with skepticism, he explained, "What I meant was that I'm not going to make any changes that you don't already know have to be made." Not surprisingly, his words did little to stem fear, help employee morale, or change the speed with which resumes were readied, even among those spared the ax.

Another executive withheld information about necessary layoffs right up to and including the time those layoffs were being put into effect. As employees were summoned one by one into the executive's office, word began to spread through the employee grapevine like wildfire. Rumors flew out of control. One fired employee began calling workers who were not present, with erroneous news they too were about to be fired. So badly had the executive handled the situation, security guards had to be called in to handle growing employee anger and frustration, right in the presence of visiting clients.

To be sure, these are extreme, real-life examples of bad news communicated badly. However, even the announcement of difficult changes can be handled well by executives, if those announcements are handled honestly, appropriately, and with open and clear communication.

It makes no sense for executives whose workplaces are filled with rumor to stay silent. Yet many executives do just that, fearing that anything they say will only add to the anxiety. The first rule of communicating about change in the workplace is the same rule used in crisis communications: tell what you know when you know it.

Even if what you do know, or are allowed to say is limited, you will do yourself and your employees a great deal of good by setting the stage for open communication early. This gives executives an opportunity to learn of employee concerns and to squelch unfounded rumors at the outset. Even more importantly, it allows executives to communicate an understanding of those concerns to employees.

That will go a long way in giving both employees who are impacted, and those who are not, more confidence that their interests are being taken into account.

Executives should also use care and attention with the words and tone they use, along with how those words are likely to be perceived. Executives uncomfortable with the emotions involved in delivering unpleasant news often choose to present a simple recitation of the facts, in a neutral tone. While it's important to let employees know what is happening, and why, its equally important executives acknowledge the real pain those changes are causing. Don't assume workers know how you feel. Workers need to hear executives empathize about the impact of difficult decisions, and acknowledge their worth and contributions.

Executives need to find as many ways as possible to help ease the blow of bad news for all employees, those who might be downsized or reassigned, as well as those left behind. Communicating about any and all options available for employees helps ease the feelings of helplessness and frustration, among those most impacted by change. For those left behind, honest communication about new job duties or increased responsibilities will go a long way toward rebuilding morale and confidence.

Bad news doesn't have to be communicated badly. Honest, clear and powerful communication can help pave the way for a new beginning.

Aileen Pincus is president of The Pincus Group, a strategic communications training firm specializing in presentation skills, media training, speech and crisis communications. On the web at http://www.thepincusgroup.com

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