Nobody wants to hear bad news – especially if the news is going to have a negative impact on their world. What’s worse than hearing bad news? Delivering it. We’ve all be there.
Communicating news that may harm someone else’s workflow, timeline, or income is something we like to draw straws for. Nose game, anyone? So you drew the short straw, or, more likely, you know it’s your responsibility to deliver the bad news. Where do you start?
Never catch everyone off guard. Hearing the news delivered shouldn’t leave your recipient completely surprised. In the business environment, it definitely shouldn’t leave your boss or higher leadership surprised. Everyone deserves a warning. Communicate early and often, before it all hits the fan. If it’s too late for this, then move on. Learn from it. Don’t let it happen again. If employees are surprised by bad news, managers aren’t doing their job.
Act swiftly. It’s easy to sit around and think, “maybe this problem will go away in a few days.” Chances are, it will get worse. Chances are, consequences will increase and credibility will decrease every hour that you delay communication. What’s more, the problem will grow in your mind. You’re overthinking things. Don’t waste time. Pick up the phone, type the email, shoot the text. Communicate appropriately and quickly.
Don’t lie to make yourself look good. This rule applies in every area of life. We like to keep information away from others to protect ourselves or to make ourselves look good. Truth is, when the truth comes out (and it usually does) you’re going to look like a fool and lose credibility. Lying about the problem can also cause confusion about the root cause of the problem, causing those who are trying to correct the issue to do unnecessary work.
Communicate your news in writing. If you feel like a face to face conversation needs to take place first, follow up with an email outlining your conversation. Documentation is important for any future conflict that may arise. Protect yourself!
Think it through. Plan your words. This isn’t a conversation you want to improvise. State the facts that you know to be true and explain the facts. People anticipate you to sugarcoat or stretch the truth. Take people by surprise with your honesty. Don’t create an opportunity for someone to call you out on your misinformation.
Be empathetic. Before you go into the meeting, think about how you would feel if you were on the other end of the conversation. If appropriate, share a personal story or wisdom you have from being in a similar situation. Make sure your words are honest and credible.
Talk about the good. People will negatively categorize this as “spin,” but focusing on the good in the midst of bad news will keep confidence and motivation up, making it easier to “bounce-back.” One caveat here: the positive angle has to be rooted in truth. Others can see right through any attempts to pull good news out of thin air.
Bring a solution to the table. Much like with criticism, if you’re going to communicate bad news, you must have a solution in mind. Share your solution immediately following the bad news. “Unfortunately, one of our biggest clients signed with a competitor today. These are the mistakes we’ve made. Here’s what we can learn from those mistakes, and I’ve outlined my plan for growing our client base this year.” Communicate hope. While your’s may not be the best and doesn’t need to ultimately be the idea that is acted upon, communicate a solution.
Ask yourself, “Who will this news impact?” Communicate to every team and individual that you think may be affected, no matter the degree of impact. It’s critical that anyone even remotely involved hears the news from you directly. Does that mean you roll out the news in the same way and at the same time to everyone? No. Think through your crowds. Communicate in an order and a fashion that makes sense for each group.
You’ve done the hard work, but your work isn’t done. In the days following the communication, pay attention. Ask questions. Hold others accountable. Most importantly, hold yourself accountable. If you made any promises or commitments, follow through. You’ve identified the disorder. You’ve cleaned up the spill. Now you get to communicate the good news that all is right in the world again. That is a much easier email to hit send on than the first. Don’t underestimate the impact that a quick positive note can have one someone else – especially after a rough week of cleaning up a mess.
In every conversation you have, in every email you send, remember: you are dealing with another person. How would you like to be treated? People matter. While most executives and managers will say that people are their greatest asset, not everyone demonstrates it. Stand out from the crowd and demonstrate that you believe your employees, co-workers, and friends truly are your organization’s greatest asset by the way that you treat them.