Most of us, at some point in our management careers, are going to have to break some bad news to an employee or colleague. But don’t worry, it is possible to deliver bad news in a good way, according to Kate Nowlan, chief executive of employee assistance experts, CiC (www.cic-eap.co.uk).
It may be that you have to tell your manager that you’ve lost a lucrative contract. Or maybe a key member of the team has been diagnosed with a serious illness and you need to tell the rest of the workforce. Or perhaps company performance hasn’t been what you were expecting and you need to tell your employees that there won’t be a pay rise or bonus this year.
Naturally, whichever scenario you’re facing, you’re going to feel anxious. Not only do you have to share the bad news, but you are faced with the unpredictability of how the person on people you’re telling might react. But although you’re going to feel apprehensive and nervous, there is a way to make the best out of the situation and ensure the news you deliver is done so accurately, sensitively and responsibly.
The following steps are a useful guide to help you manage this type of situation and minimise the emotional and psychological impact the news has on those you’re talking to.
- Never (ever) say ‘I know how you feel’ or (even worse) ‘this is more difficult for me than it is for you’. This is a great mistake that’s very easy to make, but we just don’t know how others feel or how they will respond to bad news. To pre-judge their reactions and response could make a bad situation much worse.
- Be aware of your own state of mind and reflect on how the bad news might be affecting you personally. You might need time to come to terms with your own feelings about a situation before you break the news to others. In these circumstances you may want to talk to your family, a friend or mentor first. It might also help to share your feelings with the group or person you’re breaking the news to. Because you have had more space and time to process your feelings, you are likely to be a stronger support for those who need ongoing reassurance and support.
- Decide when to give the news. It can be tempting to put off breaking bad news, but this is rarely useful for anyone involved. Don’t allow time to elapse or create an opportunity for rumour or speculation to develop.
- Prepare what to say. This doesn’t mean you need to prepare a detailed script, but you do need to think about what you want to say. This is particularly important if you are breaking very emotional news and may be struggling to think clearly yourself. Get straight to the point, share the facts and avoid long and over-complicated explanations. But even though you have prepared what you want to say, also be prepared o be flexible and watch the reaction of those around you.
- Think about where you’re going to be. Ensure you meet somewhere that is private and comfortable. Switch off mobile phones and other distractions. And wherever possible, sensitive news should always be given face-to-face rather than by email or phone or text, not only to show respect for the person you’re talking with but to give you and them the opportunity to answer questions and be supportive.
It’s also important to think ahead to what happens once the bad news is broken.
The outcome of it might be discomfort, awkwardness, anger, bewilderment or despair. Think about how you might personally react to this? If you’re uncomfortable around someone’s response to the bad news don’t be tempted to try and say something comforting. You don’t have to ‘fix’ the emotions of the other person, just simply allow them to express their feelings and show that you’re listening.
You should also think about the additional support that might help to support employees once the bad news is out. If you’ve had to make people redundant, for example, you might want to ensure employees are aware of a confidential employee helpline or access to onsite counselling support.
Ultimately, delivering bad news well can set you apart as someone courageous and honest who can keep their head under the toughest of circumstances. While it’s never easy to give bad news, if you make the right preparations you can deliver it well and help to minimise the negative impact of it on those involved.