Breaking bad news – how can leaders be more effective?

A question of perspective

It’s something we’ve all been involved with, either as a leader who has to talk to their team or department, or as a recipient hearing news that will impact us.  In any change scenario there can be a mixture of positive and negative consequences depending on individuals’ situations.  What you think is good news may be perceived as bad news and vice versa. People often see change as negative, especially if they feel it is being “done” to them.  The skill of communicating change well is becoming even more significant given the relentless speed of change in the workplace.  As Justin Trudeau said, The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.” As we learn to be better leaders and manage change more effectively, we need to harness our emotional intelligence and empathy skills to continue our journey of becoming more adaptable in the face of change. However often we have to communicate negative consequences, the reality is no one wants to be the bearer of ‘bad’ news. How do we remain honest and transparent while acting with empathy and integrity?

Top ten tips for effective communication

Having a communication plan is critical for any significant change to be successful. The detail and foresight needed depends on the size of the change, the impact it will have and your skills in navigating through a world of multiple challenges.  Here are some of the elements that are integrated within great communication plans.

  1. Get clear about why you (and others) have to communicate the ‘bad’ news so that it’s positioned with as much forethought, care and understanding as possible. Sometimes it’s also about mitigating risk as well as managing brand reputation and mitigating negative press.
  2. Describe why change is being made. Link back to overall organization goals and share external environmental trends that have made this change necessary. Have a clear vision and purpose for the change.
  3. Be clear about what the change is. What are you looking for individuals to do as a result? Do they have any decision making in aspects of implementation? What, if anything, can be negotiated?
  4. Describe timelines associated with the change and when the next steps will happen.
  5. Consider when you have discussions. Don’t deliver news that is hard to hear and then be slow in delivery as this can feel even more painful.  You will also need to be patient and acknowledge that there may be a period of discomfort that has to be lived through and that individuals will be different in the way that they respond and move along the change curve.
  6. Consider how you will communicate news. Small team or individual face to facemeetings allow for feedback and assessing reactions and may be more effective than townhall or social media platforms.  However, the whole mix of online, social and print options is also needed to reinforce the change strategy.
  7. Consider who is going to lead discussions. People like to hear overall direction and goals from their senior leaders so this is critical for strong engagement but individuals want to discuss individual impact with their direct managers so that they can understand the specific impact for them. Everyone approaches change from an individual survival perspective, the “what’s in it for me”, so make your communications outcome oriented and tailored to the individual(s)/audience.
  8. Be honest and acknowledge the extent of the negative impact(s). Share how you are planning to mitigate negative consequences. What support will be in place e.g. opportunity to discuss further / feedback channels?
  9. Reinforce positive (from your recipient’s perspective) aspects of the change. Actively ask for support to enable the positive outcomes to be realized.
  10. Check for understanding. Continue to communicate.  Ensure that there is follow up so each individual’s concerns can be heard and managed. Don’t assume that because you have said things once that people have absorbed and understood. Ensure there is a feedback loop. If you are part of a broader organisational change, ensure that you are checking in with your peers about any concerns that they are hearing and that you are addressing in a consistent manner across the organisation.

What other tips do you have?

Acknowledgements:

Anne Gilmore for her in depth expertise, insightful comments and thorough review

Larraine Solomon for identifying this as a key issue that we all need to deal with more effectively

By | 2019-08-15T07:49:20+00:00 August 15th, 2019|Coaching Leaders|0 Comments