Consider our credibility as managers. Because our message is sometimes incomplete, or if we are obviously uncomfortable delivering the news, our listeners sometimes feel we don’t know what we are talking about. Once we lose credibility, people question our authority and whether we really care about them. Very quickly, we lose control.
Think about New York City’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, during the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack. He had the city’s trust, he was credible to people in the rest of the United States, and he personified a dignified empathy.
These are the three things you want to make sure you impart when delivering bad news. First, that as the manager you are credible—meaning you have the knowledge and experience to deliver the message. Second, that you demonstrate empathy for the people who are impacted, caring about them, their well-being, and their future. Third, in your talk, you need to build trust, so people will continue to be responsible to you and the organization during this critical time.
Appreciating that we have to build empathy, credibility, and trust is not enough. We have to know what skills and behaviors to use to demonstrate those attributes when we speak to our colleagues. Let’s take a look at the principle elements and then use an example to demonstrate how they are applied.
Rumor mills in corporate America are incredibly efficient. This efficiency has been enhanced through email, text messaging, and the cell phone. Employees can now deliver any message to each other within seconds. Sometimes they are even so thoughtful when they pass on their information that they begin the message with, “Don’t tell anybody else, but ...” Unfortunately, the “don’t tell anybody” part gets dropped by the third person on the list and gets changed to, “You’d better tell everybody ...” and implied in that is, “so we can prepare our retaliation strategy!”
No matter what, don’t “sit” on the news. Get it out fast or it will find its way out on its own. The sooner you deliver the news yourself, the more you reduce the informal news flow, which is bound to be tainted in its delivery. By reducing that, you reduce anxiety and the desire for retaliation.
If possible, deliver your news in person to the total audience being impacted by the news. You want to be able to demonstrate credibility and empathy, and it is much easier to do that when they are seeing you live. Now, this can be a physical impossibility in our world of satellite home offices and cross-continental businesses. If you cannot deliver the message in person to everyone, have an “in person” meeting for your direct reports, and then use another media to reach the rest.
If “in person” is not possible, telephone conference calling is the next best method. This allows everyone to hear the same message and to ask the inevitable questions. Conference calls can be set up rather quickly and are cost efficient while allowing you to reach and involve everyone.
Email is and should be considered your last choice for delivering bad news. Although electronic mail messaging does have the advantage of being fast, it is an impersonal and one-way communication. Moreover, it can be altered, in transit.
The written word is a wonderful follow-up to the conference call or in-person interaction. It puts in writing any details that may have been difficult for the listeners to capture during the initial delivery of the news. Wherever possible, mail individual letters. This is the more personal approach, when you need to demonstrate empathy in these situations.
Speed is important, no question, but we can’t shoot from the hip. Preparation is even more important when delivering bad news than good news. You know the recipients will hang on every word. Their careers may be impacted; their lives will be changed. What we say and how we say it is critical. Spend the time necessary planning what you will say both during the talk and in the question-and-answer session afterward. Think through what questions people are likely to ask and what answers you can share.
Donald Walton, a bestselling writer, speaker, and consultant on communications said,
Those who become leaders are the ones who can best transmit their views, ideas, and enthusiasms to others. That is what a leader is.
I can’t imagine a time when being a leader, pulling people together, is more important than when an organization is under duress. Although we are certainly troubled by the impact of the bad news, we must demonstrate our views, ideas, and enthusiasms—that there is something positive to come out of all this. Use your voice and body to enhance what you say. Volume, intonation, eye control, and physical skills become critically important. (Refer to Chapter 2, How to Stand Up and Speak as Well as You Think.)
The toughest part in hearing bad news is the sense of not knowing where the bottom is and what the future looks like. In delivering the bad news, it is very important that we lay out our own estimates and speak the truth when we do.
Tell employees where you understand the bottom to be. An example of this might be, “The hardest part of this change will be in the next few weeks, when you all determine whether you want to make this move or not,” or “We expect to continue this moratorium on spending to the end of this quarter.”
You can see how important it becomes that we also provide a positive outlook for the future. We cannot expect our employees to automatically see that ray of hope. It is very hard for anyone to see the future through the veil of change. Change is scary. If we can show our vision for that change, our hope for the future, we better equip our colleagues to help us reach that goal. An example of a vision might be, “This change will allow us to continue to compete in this marketplace by focusing our resources,” or “Once we move our services to a location that makes it easier for our customers to physically reach us, our sales should improve significantly.”
A logical question for listeners once they know what is happening is: Why is it happening? The tricky part is they don’t really care about it from the corporate perspective; they care about it from their own perspective. If possible, make those personal and individual connections for them in what you say. These connections should include the value of making the changes as well as the negative consequences that may result.
For example, in a situation where a manager had to tell her employees that they were merging with the operations department and moving to offices 35 miles away, the value might be, “So our department can more easily utilize the resources of that department that we all need.” The consequences might be, “Some of you will have a longer commute every day, and some will have a shorter commute. Some of you may decide to take a different job as a result of these changes.”