communicating bad news
June 19, 2020

Communicating bad news, 8 practical tips to help leaders

By Tony Boobier

This post continues a two-part series on the theme of how to communicate difficult decisions well.

In part one, guest blogger Tony Boobier talked us through the 3 different perspectives or roles to consider. He shared tips for senior decision-makers, managers who communicate bad news and how to receive it yourself.

This sharing of Tony’s leadership experience builds on a number of posts that he has shared with us previously. Those include ones on the topics of: being a discerning leader; project management and letting go of command & control.

Now, back to Tony to share his 8 practical tips for communicating bad news well (as promised at the end of part one)…

Focusing on help for the communicating manager

Building on the principles that I shared previously, I want to focus specifically on those tasked with communicating a difficult decision. Done properly, it can also help those receiving it. 

I’ve picked up some ideas for communicating bad news over the years. They’re not a panacea for all difficult decisions but may help in some way. 

Tips for communicating bad news

(1) No surprises

Firstly, no shocks or surprises unless absolutely necessary. This might involve a pre-meeting to explain that there are issues of either business or personal performance that will need to be addressed.

(2) Have a plan

Secondly, have a plan for what needs to be said. Having a ‘plan’ is different from having a ‘script’. When a script is used then it relies on the other person to play along as a ‘co-actor’ but it doesn’t always happen like that, as the other person can easily go ‘off-script’. 

The exception is where a formal decision is being communicated such as notice of redundancy which may require information to be carefully and specifically worded. Anything else added to the discussion, even informally, can add confusion and has the potential to be misrepresented.

(3) Keep it simple

Keep the messages simple. Take time and pause, to allow key messages and possible consequences to sink in. 

(4) Go slowly

Don’t rush the conversation, even if you would prefer personally to get it over with.

(5) Don’t over-caffeinate

Don’t drink too much coffee beforehand.

(6) Be alert to legal aspects

Recognise the importance of employment law, and to ensure that whatever is said complies with that legal situation. In my experience, HR professionals are no longer just the warm and cuddly ‘personnel department’ they used to be, but are necessarily experts on employment law so it’s important to use their professionalism. Difficult decisions and communications may entitle an employee to be represented at the meeting. Union representation may be appropriate and agreed protocols need to be followed.

(7) Get the timing right

The time of day is important for communicating a message is important. Personally I prefer early/mid-morning so neither party has time to get worked up beforehand, but don’t expect much by way of productivity afterwards. Time zones can be problematic where different time zones are involved. 

(Paul: It also reminds me of the importance of thinking about the optimal timing for such meetings based on research by Daniel Pink).

(8) Confirm in writing afterwards

Agree to write after the meeting, confirming the key points, especially relative to timescales involved.

The added challenge of lockdown

Doing this on a face to face basis is bad enough but doing it remotely adds to the complexity. With 80% of all communications being non-verbal, the small screen misses an important part of the personal interaction.

For the recipient, hearing bad news online might only add fuel to their disbelief. It’s one thing hearing bad news but hearing it from a face on a screen is another. The ability of one party to empathise with another potentially also becomes increasingly limited.

Communicating to a group

Sometimes for operational reasons, a number of people might need to hear the same bad news at the same time on the same call. That makes the act of communication even less personal. The best way to do this is through a carefully scripted one-way communication.

Having a Q and A at the end of such a meeting invariably descends into individual concerns rather than being representative of the group concerns as a whole. It’s useful to have a mechanism to bring collective issues to the table, such as through an elected staff representative. In any event, in certain cases, this may be a legal requirement. 

Remember also that in a group situation, those involved may also be communicating with each other in real-time on other forms of social media.

Communicating bad news well

So, to summarise, ‘bad news‘ is bad, but how it is communicated can be critical. The need to do this on-line becomes even more likely in current times. Whilst a decision may be quite rational to an independent observer, in these current times (where jobs are scarce) it’s likely to be charged with a greater degree of emotion.

At the end of the day, there are probably two key lessons to remember. 

  • Emotional management in all its forms is probably the critical success factor of communicating difficult decisions overall, and this be can be best done by effective management of the process.
  • The other one is that of not forgetting that infamous ‘greasy pole, and to deal with others as you would want them to deal with you. 

How do you communicate bad news?

Thanks again to Tony for his practical and timely tips. I hope that helped other leaders, especially any facing the need to communicate bad news.

Do you have any tips of your own? Lessons learnt from good or bad experiences? If so, please do share in the comments below or on social media. Let’s keep the conversation flowing as we all learn how to manage well in this ‘new normal‘, including having difficult conversations.