Don’t shoot the messenger: how to communicate bad news

Drake Editorial Team

In olden days messengers who brought bad tidings risked being killed for their efforts. Times and customs have changed, but this much remains the same: no one likes being the bearer of bad news.

When you’re a leader, whether or not you have the title, what can you say when there are critical issues such as falling profits, salaries and benefits being cut, projects being cancelled and people being laid off? What should you say? This much is clear: you cannot not communicate. Refusing to talk about problems won’t make them go away. It won’t win you people’s trust and respect. And it won’t reassure them or gain their willingness to take the actions and make the changes that are necessary.

One way or another, bad news will get out. The question is not whether, but how, to communicate it. Follow these guidelines to make a potentially painful experience more positive, both for you and for the people you’re addressing.

  1. Be credible. Your words and sentiments are only as believable as you are. Make sure your message is in consistent with what your audience already knows about your values, actions, and commitments.
  2. Choose the right time and place. As a general rule—there are exceptions, of course—you’ll want to communicate the bad news as soon as possible. People will feel betrayed if they think you have unnecessarily kept them in the dark. But as the book of Ecclesiastes says, there’s a time and a place for everything. And the time and the place for breaking bad news to people is where and when they feel safest.
  3. Tailor your message to the audience. In some situations you’ll only have to address one audience—your employees, your department, your team, your clients. But in larger organizations you may be faced with several audiences—the board of directors, your executive team, stockholders, department heads and managers, the rank and file, the public, the media—and you’ll have to create a message that is suited to each audience’s particular concerns, roles, and responsibilities.
  4. Give people an advance warning. Letting people know the general purpose of the meeting will give them a heads up and brace them for bad news. In person or by email, simply let people know when and where the meeting is being held and tell them you’ll be discussing “recent developments” or “news from the main office.” Don’t go into details at that time, and don’t provide false reassurances. It’s okay to let people start worrying, as long as you don’t keep them on the hook for long.
  5. Be prepared. Whenever the news is bad, the stakes are high. And you wouldn’t approach any other high-stakes presentation without knowing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, would you? This is not the time for ad-lib remarks or for shooting from the hip. This is the time for carefully chosen words and a confident delivery.
  6. Start with the facts. Be truthful and never say anything that you can’t substantiate. For all too obvious reasons, people today have grown distrustful of leaders in both politics and business. So it’s even more imperative for you to lead with integrity. Tell people what they need to know as objectively, fairly, and completely as possible. Do not sugar-coat or downplay the bad news. Pattern yourself after Sergeant Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Then tell people what those facts mean.
  7. Be empathetic. Acknowledge people’s feelings in a compassionate way without turning the event into a therapy session or a sob fest. Avoid telling people you know exactly how they feel, or going into too much detail. You might want to say something like, “I know how difficult and painful these changes will be.” If appropriate, share your own feelings. Whatever you say, your underlying message needs to be both credible and caring. And then put your organization’s actions behind it.
  8. Provide hope. Do not make promises that you may not be able to keep or give assurances about the future that may not hold true. But give people reason to believe that their work has meaning, their contributions have value, and their prospects have potential. Leaders see possibilities when others see only failure, and people need hope now more than ever.
  9. Encourage action. You have people’s attention. (Bad news has a way of making people sit up and take notice.) You’ve told them what is happening and explained why. You’ve given them hope. Now set them to work. Tell people exactly what you want them to do, and show them how they will benefit from doing it.
  10. Reinforce values. Show people how everything your organization is doing to address the situation or to respond to the crisis is in alignment with its values. How your organization acts and how you personally act under pressure tells people more about what you really value than anything else you say. Use this time as a teaching moment.
  11. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Don’t be like the proverbial husband who told his wife that he loved her on the day they got married and hasn’t told her again because he said it once and, darn it, she should know. At best, people only hear part of any speech, rarely the whole of it. This is especially true when they are steeling themselves for what they fear is coming.  So you have to say it again and again and again. Once you’ve spoken face to face to everyone involved, schedule follow-up meetings. Make yourself available to talk in a variety of settings.

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but leaders do it without flinching because they know it needs to be done. They know it is in the best interests of the people they serve. And that’s the hallmark of a real leader, isn’t it?

Reprinted with the permission of Chris Witt, founder and president of Witt Communications.  He works with business leaders who want to motivate, inspire, and influence audiences. Chris is a speaker, coach and author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas. www.wittcom.com.


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