How To Break Bad News

Breaking bad news is part of leadership. No one likes it, but it is part of the natural order of things. Bad things happen and it is up to leadership to communicate the news when it does. Telling bad news isn’t easy, but it is a big part of the role so we'd better get this right first time.

Because it is bad news, it means that we must use the occasion to demonstrate our leadership skills to their maximum. Skills such as: Presentation Skills, by using all available media to convey the message effectively (Web, email, notice boards, Intranet, Team Briefing). Planning, by anticipating people’s reaction to the news. Interpersonal Skills, by giving people the message in such a way that they value the way in which you have dealt with this sensitive issue.

Here are the 4 C’s of giving bad news:

Congruency: Say what you mean and mean what you say. You should be honest and aligned inwardly to your message. When we are truthful, then we are aligned inwardly to our message. Visible behaviour, our body language, will be in line too. I'm not advocating brutal honesty either, your goal should be to let your team know what is going on without completely destroying everything they've worked hard to build. Being truthful and honest means that we should be sensitive and empathetic to our audience. Fight the urge to lie or distort, even though that path might seem easier. Whatever you do be truthful, because your team deserves the truth. In short, create a genuine bond between you and your team to facilitate clear communication at this crucial moment.

Clarity: Develop your speech so that every word is crystal clear for meaning. Leave nothing to doubt. Remember that your audience may well not hear every word because they are in shock. Have handouts summarising the news so that people can refer to this for more understanding afterwards. Clarity is power. Make time to answer questions and prepare to be patient and sensitive in response. If there's a lot of information to convey, you might consider broadcasting the headlines to everyone & then imparting the rest of the information in smaller, follow up meetings. This is not the time for "Death-by-PowerPoint".

Concise: Use the KISS method (Keep it Short & Sweet). Don’t waffle or fluff. Keep to the point and allow plenty of time for questions. Be aware that your receiver of bad news will go through a cycle of emotions and you should prepare yourself for an onslaught of aggressive questions. Also be prepared for zero response at the meeting because of shock. Arrange follow ups to keep people in the loop and up to date. Prepare for anger and aggression, these are natural responses & being prepared means not rising to the strong emotions in the room, be empathetic of course but stay strategic if you can. Being empathetic doesn’t mean apologising, although if that is what is required because of something you or the organisation has done, then say sorry and mean it.

Create a Better Future: Point towards the horizon and paint a vision of values and achievement. Tell people who you are as a team, what you do and why it matters. Doing this won’t heal the wounds of bad news, however will start the process. Even with bad news, you can find silver lining in the cloud for everyone. Ensure that those directly affected by the news has your personal support & detail the resources available to them. Again, they may not take this onboard because they are shocked and have written details to hand for them.

Your team will remember how you handled this piece of news and how you made them feel, more than the actual words you say, long after the event. However the words you choose have meaning alongside the way you say them, be sensitive to this effect.

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Have your best week!


PS: I'd love to hear from you, please drop by and say hi. Any feedback on this post is most welcome :oD

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Mervyn is an international leadership development specialist and keynote speaker delivering inspirational workshops and talks around the world.

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