“Managers get lots of training on how to fire an individual employee but usually are left on their own when they have to deliver bad news to a group.
No matter how skillfully you announce bad news, it’s likely to cause anxiety, result in at least a temporary drop in productivity, and prompt some of your valued employees to look for work elsewhere.
How can you deliver bad news in a way that minimizes the damage? Here’s a four-part plan for announcing any kind of news that causes disappointment, whether it’s not making the numbers, relocating facilities, or eliminating a valued perk.
1. Do it as soon as possible.
Bad news travels faster than a space shuttle. Until an official announcement is made, there will be wild speculation by your employees. Head off the rumors quickly. Speaking up asap will let you define exactly what’s happening and accurately describe its implications. At the same time, you’ll earn points by showing that you’re in charge and are being forthright.
Though email would give you the speed and control you need, it’s the worst possible medium for delivering bad news. No matter how you phrase the announcement, you’ll appear cowardly and cold. Announce the news at a meeting for everyone who’ll be affected. If more than one meeting’s needed, schedule them one after the other and be sure to keep the message consistent.
Schedule the meeting for early in the day. This will give the employees time to digest it and ask questions. Doing it at closing time will make you look evasive.
2. Speak candidly. Tell the employees everything that can be told. If you don’t yet know the full extent of the impending change, say so. If time goes by and there’s nothing new to announce, say there isn’t any new news, so you avoid creating an anxiety-feeding information vacuum.
Managers sometimes appear uncaring when they announce bad news because they worry they might look weak. It’s better to worry about looking uncaring. Be compassionate, but don’t apologize for your bad news or talk at length about how bad you feel.
To come across as credible and sincere, you have to look at the audience in the eye. This is something that can’t be done by reading a speech. Rehearse the presentation so well that you can deliver it unscripted. As you rehearse the words, you should also rehearse the body language you’ll use. What the audience sees will make a stronger impact than what you’re saying.
3. Give them the big picture. Begin the presentation by giving context — but do it quickly. Too much background up front can make you look insecure about getting to the bad news itself. If you played a part in what went wrong, or took part in a decision that will be painful for the employees to hear, admit it.
Assure the employees that management has a strategy for overcoming hard times, and ask for their support. Without misrepresenting the situation, be optimistic. Emphasize all the organization is doing to combat the problem, and what specific actions management is taking to spare employees pain.
Be ready to tell everyone what their role will be in addressing the problem, and assure them that they’ll have a voice in future planning.
4. Plan for questions. An otherwise excellent presentation can be undermined with an awkward handling of the Q&A. Anticipate the questions you’re likely to be asked and be ready for them with concise and credible answers. Adapt them for the particular audience you’re addressing.
If a question is complicated, rephrase it to simplify it without changing the meaning. If it’s angry, recast it in neutral language. Your news may generate a number of angry questions. Be sure you control your own emotions and answer these questions respectfully.
As you answer questions, begin by looking at the questioner, then look at the rest of the audience to signal that the answer is meant for everyone. You can prevent unfriendly questioners from asking repetitive follow-up questions — and give more people a chance to ask their questions — by looking at the opposite part of the room as you finish your answer and recognizing a question coming from there.
Delivering bad news is one of the biggest challenges managers face. By handling the challenge well, you’ll mobilize the employees to help you meet your goals — and demonstrate to senior management how well you can lead in tough times.
Read this article at Harvard Business Publishing: http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/cs/2009/10/how_to_deliver_bad_news_to_a_g.html