“What is the most difficult conversation you have had at work?” When I asked this question at a client training last week, the team members identified several scenarios from their own experiences. However, one which stood out as most common and most difficult was delivering bad news. Whether it is informing a manager about a serious error, telling a client that an investment or deal did not work out, telling an employee that the promotion he or she expected can’t be awarded, or, one of the most dreaded of all, releasing a good employee because the company is downsizing, business professionals agree that announcing such news is one of the most challenging tasks at work. Is there a way we can simply this dreaded task?
Consider these five tips which will help you convey grim news in an effective manner.
Once you know that you have to deliver bad news to someone, try to find the earliest time and an appropriate place to have the conversation. Delaying it will only make the conversation more difficult for both you and the listener. Bad news should also never come as a surprise. For example, if you see something which could potentially lead to a big loss, the best thing to do would be to immediately notify the senior leadership or stakeholders.
Find Out All the Facts
While it is important to convey the news as early as possible, before rushing to do so, take a few minutes to gather all the information related to the event. The person listening to you, whether an employee or a manager, may have several questions about what he or she has just heard. At that point, lay out all the facts as clearly as you can.
Provide the Rationale
Always try to provide the reason for that particular action or event, whether it is a decision to not promote an employee, not being able to complete the project before the deadline, or not meeting sales targets. Studies have shown that people find it easier to accept the news if they feel that there is some transparency and fairness in the decision making. This is called “procedural fairness.” Use words like, “The reason we can’t give you the promotion right now is …,” which gives people the sense that it is a well-thought-out decision.
Focus on Solutions or the Next Step
One of the most important rules of delivering bad news is to enter the conversation with some solutions, alternative opportunities, or ideas for the road ahead. For example, you have recently discovered that you have made a mistake which might lead to the loss of a client. While informing your manager about this action, also provide a backup plan, your next steps, and how you want to manage the situation. This will help you focus on the future rather than the bad news itself.
Do Unto Others As You Want Others to Do to You
Above all, before and while facilitating any such conversation, remember to put yourself into the shoes of the other person. How would you feel and think if you were the one receiving the news? This point is especially true for leaders and managers who are speaking with their subordinates. Communicate and interact with empathy. Respect the other person and his or her thoughts and emotions. Invite her or him to ask questions or express concerns. Do not rush through the news and show him or her the door. Take time to listen.
Case Study – Delivering the News of a Downsizing
Christelle is one of the senior managing directors at the securities division of a leading global bank in the Hong Kong office. She is highly experienced and successful. As a senior leader on the floor, she is involved in all key decision making. She is a people person and a very approachable leader and is respected and admired by her team.
Christelle had a tough situation at hand. The board had decided to downsize the division at the Hong Kong office, and several employees had to be released. Christelle was given the responsibility to convey the news to the team members who were being let go. She was feeling awful; some of them were brilliant and had been with the firm for a long time. She tried to fight for some of them with the senior partners. However, the decision was not reversed, so Christelle prepared herself for the difficult task ahead. She did some background study for each of the team members and prepared appropriate strengths-opportunities checklists for each of them. She scheduled a one-on-one meeting with each person and made sure she gave each enough time.
During the conversation she explained the firm’s decision. She focused each conversation on the employee’s strengths and opportunities. The team members were definitely in shock and denial. They were upset. In each case Christelle didn’t try to rush the conversation. She let the news sink in and let each person express his or her thoughts. Even though she was feeling emotionally drained at the end of the day, she was also relieved that she had done her job in the best way possible.
Remember that how you say something often matters much more than what you say. As Rumi said, “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
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