Delivering Bad News

Everyone in a leadership or management position has to deliver bad news from time to time. Human Resources professionals almost always are called upon to deliver the bad news. It just comes with the territory.

Trust me it is never easy, no matter how many times you do it. However, I have found that  it’s not always as scary as we make it out to be. We build it up in our minds and sometimes rush to get it over with is what often results in a negative outcome.

Below are some examples of news that we pray will disappear before we have to confront it.  Some fall into the Human Resources category while others are more management related.

  • Explaining to the world – and all your customers that a product has yet another major defect.
  • Telling a group of employees that you will no longer be offering medical insurance.
  • Telling a group of employees that they must take a pay cut.
  • Informing your boss that the company lost a key customer.
  • Telling your CEO that you have lost the presentation file he was to use in presenting to a huge prospect and he’s going to have to wing it.
  • Telling a group of employees that the Company will be having a major layoff.  For HR, telling an employee his/her job will be affected.

I can go on and on with examples and some really depressing stories, and while each one seems unique, there is, more or less, a single method for dealing with this most challenging of business situations.  By far the biggest mistake people make in delivering bad news is the emotional build up and the unnecessary rush to get it over with. They typically don’t take the time to:

  • Diffuse their own emotional state
  • Put themselves in the other person’s shoes
  • Do enough contingency planning to know what can be done to make things right and under what conditions to offer them.

Not surprisingly, the method incorporates elements of crisis management, customer service, effective communication, and even some psychology. And, if you do it with empathy and finesse, I’ve found that you can actually improve your relationship with the other party, rather than damage it.

Steve Tobak suggests these four Steps to help improve the process and maybe the outcome of delivering bad news

Step One: Be Genuine. Be honest with yourself about the role you personally played in the outcome. This is critical because, if you played a direct role, i.e. you screwed up, you need to be straight with yourself about that or you’ll end up feeling guilty and weird and that will come across negatively. In other words, you need to diffuse your own emotional state.

Step Two: Be Empathetic. Put yourself in the other person or people’s shoes. I really mean that; give it some time and really get in there. Try your best to understand what they stand to lose as a result of the bad news. Make sure you’re clear that, regardless of your personal role in causing the problem, you are, to the other party, responsible and accountable.

Step Three: Plan. Consider all the ways you can make the situation right. In the case of a major delivery issue to a customer, communicating a product bug, or equally significant event, that may require one or more internal pre-meetings. In any case, you need to have a clear picture of the options at your disposal and under exactly what conditions you and your company are willing to bring them to bear on the problem.

Step Four: The Delivery. Now, and only now, are you ready to deliver the bad news in real-time. If you did the first three steps right, your emotional state will be clear. That means you’ll be empathetic but not emotionally distraught, freeing your conscious mind to make clear-headed decisions in real-time. And depending on the reaction, you have an arsenal of possibilities to offer to help make things right.

Steve uses an example of when he was head of sales and had to tell a customer his company could not deliver a key component on time, resulting in a shut-down of his customer’s production line.

During the “bad news delivery” face-to-face meeting with the customer, he held a conference call with my company’s head of operations who, seemingly on the fly and under pressure from the customer, committed to an accelerated schedule that would minimize the customer’s pain.

That was a preplanned contingency to use if necessary. The result was a customer who felt that 1) I would do anything to go to bat for him, 2) my company would pull out all the stops to meet his needs, and 3) he helped to make all that happen by the way he handled the meeting. We all won and our relationship was stronger as a result.

I too could tell you many stories of tough conversations that ended on a positive and sometimes hopeful front because of the preparation steps taken.  If you follow these four steps, you’ll minimize the negative impact and, at times, even come out ahead.