If you have been leading for very long, you’ve had bad news to deliver to someone or to your entire team.
I do realize that there is “bad news” and there is “seriously-work-and-life-changing-bad-news”, but regardless of the depth, leaders worry about the impact the news will have on the psyche, attitude and motivation of their teams.
While that is a worthy concern, there are several things to think about that will change your approach, your expectations and likely your results when you have to be the bearer of bad news.
Before Your Start…
It will happen. First and foremost, as I’ve already said (and you already know), bad news will surface. As a leader, you can’t be surprised by the fact that you have a tough message to deliver, and you must be prepared to deliver it.
Don’t wait. Procrastination doesn’t make it better, and it usually makes it worse. You know it is true. Share what you know, when you know it.
How bad is it? The truth about this depends greatly on your perspective. There is no doubt you have examples in your life where you thought news was bad, and that with the wisdom that comes from time, that “bad” thing either wasn’t as bad as imagined or actually became something good. Keep this in mind as you prepare to deliver the message.
Think about the whole picture. The situation may be bad, but is it all bad? If we frame it as negative from the start, the chances of you (or anyone else) seeing anything other than the negative is greatly diminished. Before you deliver the message, make sure you are seeing it from every side first.
When Delivering the News…
Acknowledge the bad, share it all. In the last point, I encouraged you to get a broader perspective on the situation and the news. I am not suggesting you sugar coat the news or make things seem better than they are. I am suggesting you help people see the full picture – warts, scars and possibilities too. Your goal is to communicate the message clearly and help the team move past it. Without a 360 perspective it will be more difficult for them to move forward.
Shut up and let people ask questions. This is really two pieces of advice in one, but the first is required to get to the second. Make your remarks and share the news, then shut up. Often the longer you talk, the worse you will make it. Understanding and acceptance comes from conversation, not from listening. Let people ask their questions about the news – both what it is and the implications of it.
Allow people to vent. Depending on the nature of the news, people may be angry, upset and frustrated. Make it safe for them to vent and let some of those emotions out. You know from experience that when negative emotions remain bottled up; they become bigger, worse and more explosive. Let people share their concerns and remember that your job then isn’t to justify, explain or “fix”, just to let them talk.
Focus on the future. The news is out and the facts are the facts. None of that can be changed now. To motivate your team moving forward you must help the team move past the news to what is next. You might need more than one meeting to get people to move forward; depending on the news, it might take a bit of time. But in every communication with the team and individuals, help them focus on the future – which is something they can influence.
Crafting and delivering the message isn’t all that you want to achieve here. The challenge isn’t just sharing the bad news, but doing it so that it doesn’t de-motivate your team. If you have done the first two steps, you are heading in the right direction, but as a leader you must continue to keep people’s focus on the future, on what they can do regardless of, or in spite of, the bad news. Yes, depending on what the news is, people may need to grieve, but wallowing in grief for too long is the demotivating factor you were worried about in the first place.