Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable: Five strategies for delivering bad news to employees

It’s a crazy, weird, and often unpredictable world. There are ups, and there are downs. That’s especially true in business. As soon as we overcome one challenge, another — sometimes even bigger — one is lurking around the corner. We might not have expected anything as gigantic as a global pandemic, but we’ve all been through it now. And three years later, we are still dealing with the aftershocks.

We all might not be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm. I read that somewhere and feel it is an apt description. At any one time, you may be faced with some hard decisions, from a singular performance problem with an employee to decisions that have a significant impact on an entire group of people.

Whether those decisions mean something unfortunate, like disciplinary action, reduced hours, a termination, or layoffs, the news will be bad for the person receiving it. As the manager, you are the one tasked with delivering that news, and it’s probably not something you’re looking forward to. Even terminating an employee who is doing poorly or dragging others down is not exactly something we want to do despite knowing it will be better for everyone in the long run.

That’s because you know you’re going to face resistance, frustration, or even anger. Bad news, even during good times, is still bad. And if you’re anything like me, you might get pulled into worst-case scenario thinking that will sabotage your confidence and resolve. To minimize your nerves as well as negative reactions, here are five effective strategies for delivering bad news:

  1. Take time to plan and prepare. Preparation always makes the job easier. Having just finished painting my living room, the planning is where the real work happens that makes the job itself go smoothly. From picking a color, gathering the necessary tools, buying the paint, and covering the floors and furniture, the planning meant we had everything we needed for the job without multiple, frustrating trips to Lowe’s. It’s not the fun part, but it did allow us to finish the job in one weekend. It doesn’t mean you won’t get thrown for a loop, but the odds of that happening will be lower. Plus, having a plan and answers to questions you expect to come up will give you something to focus on if you start to feel rattled by the conversation. Even the most assertive leadership personality types can feel uncomfortable with difficult conversations.
  2. Be empathetic and listen. Kindness and respect go a long way. Though you don’t want to sugar coat the message, there is no need to keep compassion out of the equation. Look at the situation from their perspective and don’t get defensive by their reaction. Venting is natural. Let it happen, and listen rather than instantly shutting it down. Just make sure you are clear that the decisions are final.
  3. Explain the reasoning. Provide employees with thorough explanations of why the decisions/changes are being made, who will be affected, and if possible, how such alterations can benefit everyone. For example, reducing hours means fewer lay-offs, or forcing PTO usage means you don’t need to reduce hours. Introducing change in a positive light can prevent unwanted apprehension or resistance.
    If the news involves changes to daily tasks or operating procedures, be prepared to train people on the new expectations and outline the plan in the meeting. Highly structured staff members (usually those with a tall column 8 on the Omnia assessment) will want step-by-step guidance on how to perform such activities correctly.
  4. Take a look at the employee’s Omnia assessment before the meeting as part of your prep work. Delivering news to a supportive, analytical employee might require more detailed explanations and attentive consideration than delivering news to an assertive, impatient, big-picture employee. But remember, empathy is always necessary (see tip 2).
  5. Don’t hide the decision behind confusing messages. You’ll just paint yourself into a corner and feel unprepared for the questions. A clear, firm message is best; ambiguity creates doubt as to the purpose of the change, and that might create more resentment.

Delivering bad news is never easy and it is never fun, but it’s also never going away. There are always going to be uncomfortable conversations in business and in life. It’s inevitable. It can be especially difficult when you know the decisions are not a reflection of poor performance or something else within an employee’s control. However, these five strategies should remove some of the pain on both sides of the table.

Wendy Sheaffer

Wendy Sheaffer

Chief Product Officer at The Omnia Group, an employee assessment firm providing the power of behavioral insight to help organizations make successful hires and develop exceptional employees. For more information, ... Web: Details