8 good ways to break bad news

Sharing bad news isn’t easy, but these tips can help ease the pain.

A client asked me about the best way to share bad news, so I tried to share some useful guidelines. Much of this could apply to a manager sharing difficult news with a direct report, as well as a corporate communicator with change management communication responsibilities.

1. Be empathetic

Stating the facts simply and directly is always a good place to start: “We recognize that this will be a significant loss…” and words to this effect can go a long way in building a bridge with your target audience.

2. Be proactive

This is getting out in front of the message. We want to avoid the element of surprise and provide as much warning as possible so that people have a chance to plan for the change. If the announcement involves pay or the reduction of an incentive, legal may require distribution of the message five months in advance of the actual curtailment, so plan accordingly. Test the message with a focus group to anticipate the responses of your wider target audience.

3. Get to the point

Avoid deception of any kind and be as forthright as possible. Avoid spin or beating around the bush. Get to the point quickly and effectively.

4. Anticipate reactions to the change

Simple question and answer communication can help you anticipate the issues and concerns of your target audience. By capturing feedback from a focus group well in advance of the communication, you can understand and address any issues or concerns before they come up.

5. Map the bad news to strategic corporate goals

Is there an enterprise-wide effort underway to reduce overhead in order to focus on new product marketing? Are there audits underway to reduce disproportionate spending on low priority program requirements? A meaningful sharing of strategy can help employees focus on the greater good. It will be useful to couch the message in these terms.

6. Focus on positives

When giving bad news, it’s always a good idea to try to focus on the positives. Take the time to highlight the positives—not what’s being taken away, but what remains. Are you taking away an incentive for a program, but not the career-pathing opportunity? Is the opportunity to refine or gain marketable skills still there? Talk about it. Stay away from spin, but do try to balance the bad news (what’s changing) against the value or benefit of what’s not changing. It usually makes sense to blend what’s being preserved with what’s being lost, in order to soften the blow.

7. Commit to listening and engaging

Employee focus groups serve another useful purpose—they send a clear message that senior management is willing to listen to employee feedback and concerns. It extends a sort of emotional empathy to the bad news process, which is always advisable. Finally, integrating employee feedback into the decision-making process builds toward a consensual decision-making model, and leads to an integrated two-way approach to communication.

8. Stay along for the ride

Stay in touch. Corporate culture and openness are big variables here, but using a subscription-based RSS feed with blog updates is certainly a great way for senior leaders to create a direct, ongoing connection with employees who wish to be updated as each stage of change unfolds.

Dom Crincoli is a Senior Strategic Consultant at Dulye & Co., and blogs at DomCrincoli.com.

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