No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. To make matters worse, whether you are a corporate CEO or President of the United States, having to deliver bad news leaves you wide open for major scrutiny. One has only to look at the barrage of criticism heaped on officials for their handling of product recalls, current events such as the global pandemic or foreign affairs to understand that doing a poor job of communicating decisions on serious issues can lead to confusion, hostility, or have a negative impact on your credibility.
No matter how well you announce bad news, it will most likely cause anxiety, lead to at least a temporary drop in productivity, and prompt some of your valued employees to freshen up their resumes and look for work elsewhere. If you are going to have to tell people what they do not want to hear, you’d better get it right.
Here is a four-part plan for announcing any kind of news that causes disappointment, whether it is not making the numbers, relocating, closing facilities, or eliminating a valued perk such as working from home.
1. Do it as soon as possible. Unwelcome news travels faster than the speed of light. Your employees no doubt know that “something’s up,” and until an official announcement is made, there will be lots of speculation about what is going to happen. Head off the rumors quickly. Speak up, define what is happening and truthfully describe its implications. This also demonstrates that you are in charge and are being candid.
A word here on using email to deliver bad news: Don’t. Though email would give you the speed and control you need, it is the worst possible medium for delivering bad news. No matter how you phrase the announcement, you will appear cowardly and cold. Announce the news at a meeting for everyone who will be affected. If more than one meeting is needed, schedule them one after the other and be sure to keep the message consistent.
2. Speak candidly. Tell your employees everything that can be told. If you do not yet know the full extent of the news, say so. If time goes by and there is nothing new to announce, say there is not any updated news, so you avoid creating an anxiety-feeding information vacuum. (This update announcement could be made via email). While speaking candidly, also be compassionate. However, do not apologize for your bad news or talk at length about how bad you feel. This makes you look weak.
To come across as credible and sincere, you need to look the audience in the eye. This cannot be done by reading a speech. Make sure you have rehearsed the bad news presentation so well that you can deliver it unscripted. Record yourself and listen to how it sounds. Are you conveying your message in the tone you intended? Also think about your body language. Stand up straight and gesture appropriately. What the audience sees will have a stronger impact than what you are 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.
It is important to assure the employees that management has a strategy for overcoming the problems at hand and ask for their support. Without misrepresenting the situation, be optimistic. Emphasize everything the organization is doing to combat the problem, and what specific actions management is taking to spare employees pain.
Do not make the employees feel helpless. Tell everyone what their role will be in addressing the problem and assure them that they will have a voice in future planning.
4. Plan for questions. Anticipate the questions you are likely to be asked and be ready for them with concise and credible answers. Adapt them for the audience you are addressing.
If a question is complicated, rephrase it to simplify it without changing the meaning. If it is angry, rephrase it in neutral language. For example, if they ask: “How many people are going to lose their job as a result of this decision?” A neutral rephrase might be, “What will be the impact on staffing?” Remember, your news will probably generate several angry questions. Be sure you control your own emotions and answer those questions respectfully.
As you answer questions, begin by looking at the questioner, then look at others in 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 are more likely to galvanize your employees to help you meet your goals—and demonstrate to senior management (and the press) how well you can lead in tough times.
For more information on how to present any topic more effectively, please visit Communispond’s website at www.communispond.com and check out our course offerings on Delivering Memorable Presentations and on Creating Memorable Presentations.