Effectively delivering bad news is an essential leadership skill when developing your Executive Presence as a leader. Executive Presence is one of the 7 critical leadership competencies of high potential leaders.
Every leader, at some point in their careers, has had to deliver unpleasant information to others. No matter whether it involves announcing a company layoff, informing of a devastating medical diagnosis, or advising of an elimination in funding for charitable organization, delivering bad news is often a gut-wrenching responsibility of leaders.
And to top it off, delivering bad news is a skill that is rarely taught in college, business schools, or company-sponsored training.
Deliver bad news right – it can be empowering and open up a world of new possibilities. Deliver bad news wrong – the human toll will be devastating (ex. Low morale, high risk of losing critical staff, lower profits, negative impact to your organization’s brand).
Should you find yourself required to be the spokesperson for a difficult message, here are a few tips on ways to avoid the drama associated with delivering bad news:
Tip 1: Get the Facts
While decisions are made at the highest levels of leadership, too often it is the mid-level leaders who have to deliver the message of the decision to others. Since you may not have been present when the decisions were made, you may not have the full context of the reasoning behind the announcement. Make sure you ask your direct manager for talking points to include in your communications and don’t be afraid to ask any questions you may have. Your personal reputation as a leader will definitely take a hit if you appear to be confused or uninformed.
Tip 2: Strategize Your Delivery
Once you have your talking points, decide the best setting to deliver the news. If possible, deliver the message in-person. If you are delivering the message one-on-one, sit less than 4 feet away, make constant eye contact, and lean a little forward when speaking. This body positioning demonstrates both authority and empathy. Deliver your message straightforward and without jargon. For example, “The economy is bad and the budget is limited, so we are going to have to cut 10% of the staff.”
Speaking to a group? Maintain eye contact with at least one person in the audience at all times and try to walk around the room while speaking.
If you find yourself delivering bad news via phone or video, acknowledge that you wish you could be there in person, but it is important that you inform them of the latest news and how it applies to them. At all costs, avoid text or email when delivering bad news. How would you feel if you were notified by text that your job was eliminated? As sad as this is to say, it does happen.
Tip 3: Allow Time To Mentally Process
Most bad news involves some sort of loss. Loss of the ways things are and having to mentally process for the new reality. Humans need time to go through the 5 stages of loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Some individuals do it faster than others.
Acknowledge the person’s emotions appropriately. Be attentive and supportive, but don’t say “I know how you feel”, because you likely don’t. Consider something like, “I realize that this may be a terrible shock to you, but I’m committed to helping us to move forward in the best way possible.”
If the individual seems to be accepting the bad news okay, you may be able to close your meeting in one session. Other times, it may be necessary to set-up a follow-up meeting to discuss next steps, if the individuals seems very emotional or not willing to talk further at that time.
My challenge for you: Before you use these tips, don’t forget to give yourself some time to mentally process the implications of the bad news too. Just because you are required to be the messenger to others does not mean that you don’t need your own self-care. Take time to talk with your boss, peers, family, or trusted advisors before tackling this tough task.