Delivering Bad News

I met with a client today, and our goal was to plan for delivery of bad news--their annual employee engagement survey had come back with very low numbers, reflecting a hard reality in a pretty tangible way.

She told me about a time a few years back when they'd had these same sorts of meetings. An executive had visited to share the survey results with the group, and had tried in vain to lead a cheerleading session: "Come on, guys! We can get these numbers up!" 

I identify with that executive--wanting to infuse energy into the group, wanting to give them hope. As Winston Churchill famously said, "For myself I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else." I do this work because of the hope I have for groups to be extraordinary. And I am an optimist.

But the worst thing you can do if you're going to deliver bad news to your employees is to act like it's not bad news. That doesn't respect them--their intelligence, their knowledge of the work, or their humanness. After coaching many leaders, here's a few things I've learned about how to do this with heart and guts:

  1. If it's possible, let the bad news rest with you for a bit before you share it. Work through your own feelings about it, talk to a friend or appropriate colleague. Have whatever sadness, anger, or confusion you need to have so you can be present for your staff once their sadness or anger kicks in.
  2. When you're ready to deliver the news, don't sugarcoat it. Be clear about all that you know at the moment and clear about what's yet to be discovered or decided. But don't just focus on the "head" stuff. Calmly (and calmness is important!) share with them how you felt when you understood or heard the news, maybe something like, "When I first heard this, I was really disappointed. I had hoped for a different outcome." Get the "heart" part in there.
  3. Walk the line between giving employees too much information, which can be anxiety-producing, or not enough information, which has the same affect. 
  4. You might not be able to express hope for the future. Even so, you can can express trust in your staff--in their ability to pull together when the chips are down, their history of facing obstacles, and simply the sort of people they are. 
  5. Follow up. Don't deliver a "hit and run" and just hope people pick up the pieces. Give updates, support other leaders to follow up, and have a plan.

Our "bad news" meeting ended up going well even though the news was still bad. Staff had a chance to process, give input, and just sit silently with one another for a few minutes. Sometimes the most we can offer is a little calm in the storm.