May 11, 2020

Delivering Bad News

You’ve heard these phrases way too much lately:

“In these uncertain times.”

“The new normal.”

“Jerry, can you please mute your line?”

Without question, the way we work and the way we communicate have changed dramatically over the last eight weeks as we struggle to maintain “business as usual” while grappling with the challenging realities of our national economy.

And now, many of us are facing tough decisions that will have significant long-term consequences. Leaders who have been focused on charting a steady, hopeful course through this crisis, need to think carefully and deliberately about how best to deliver bad news. As if delivering tough news like layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and reorganizations aren’t tough enough, leaders will have to deliver this news by phone, video conference or email, the latter of which we absolutely do not recommend.

Back in 1847, The American Medical Association’s (AMA) first code of ethics noted the sacred duty of doctors to consider their “words and manner” as carefully as their acts of medical care. That powerful advice resonates across disciplines, now more than ever.

As you make plans to share sobering developments across your organization, including decisions that could affect staffing levels and benefits going forward, we offer this guidance:

Be prepared

Understanding the facts, figures and operational details leading to a difficult decision is just the first step. Equally important is recognizing the profound ripple effect difficult decisions will have on your team and taking care to deliver news as transparently and humanely as possible. Thinking in advance about the perspective and unique experience of your team will help build empathy and anticipate questions. Recognizing in advance that bad news will engender natural resentment and anger can help you manage these difficult personal encounters.

Be real

Respecting others means leveling with them. Be upfront about the news without hiding behind over-used and empty phrases such as “despite all of our efforts” or “I was really hoping to avoid this.” It’s natural to want to soften the blow, but give your audience credit. They know times are challenging – we’re all carefully following the news.

Instead, squarely outline efforts leadership undertook to prevent, contain or avoid the situation. Give them time to ask questions or simply vent. Understand that silence likely will follow the news. Don’t rush the conversation or communication. While we may not be surprised by tough developments during times like this, we still need time to process the finality of it. Provide a way for those affected to follow-up if they think of questions later.

Be personal

There is no easy way to do this. It’s human nature to put off bad news as long as we can. But by sharing information and being as transparent as possible, you can set a humane tone and properly establish expectations. Without diminishing the scope of the current challenge, consider sharing a personal story of your own career that demonstrates how adversity can make us professionally stronger, better prepared and successful.

The pandemic challenges facing all of us will continue to impact the way we work and live for years. How we communicate with each other will also continue to evolve. However, fundamental to our success is a consistent need to engage authentically with others, during good times and bad.

And, as the AMA wisely established more than 150 years ago, how you communicate with your team matters as much as the news you are delivering.