Being the Bearer of Bad News

Photo of group of sad business people

At one point or another, all leaders will have to deliver bad news. From benefits changes to layoffs and project cancellations, disappointing news is occasionally necessary. Planning effectively for delivering the information in a strategic yet empathetic way is essential for maintaining strong relationships and engagement with employees throughout the change process.

  1. Gather all the facts. After processing the news, your employees will likely launch into rapid-fire questioning. In times of bad news and uncertainty, they will want to find clarity in what is expected/certain. Providing as many details as possible is essential for reducing anxiety and reassuring employees that the decision was made after thorough consideration. The more questions that are left unanswered, the more employees may feel like the decision was made in haste and without considering the impact on others.
  2. Deliver the plan. When possible, share as much about the future state as possible. When tough decisions are made, they’re likely made to preserve something crucial (finances, core focus, etc.). Sharing why the decisions were made and how the decision benefits the health of the department/organization provides context that may lead to more respect/understanding from employees. If the reasoning behind the decision is explained effectively, employees may not like the outcome but can understand how leadership arrived at the decision.
  3. Be authentic. While it’s important to stick to the communication plan/talking points provided by the decision makers, it’s equally important to speak from your point of view. Your employees have a one-on-one relationship with you as their leader, and need to hear information that aligns with everything they know about you. It’s okay to express your own disappointment/concerns in the spirit of being authentic. Just make sure you also balance your honesty with a message of hope.
  4. Be empathetic. Before delivering bad news, take time to put yourself in the shoes of each team member. Imagine their reaction and the likely questions they will ask. Think through how they’ll want to be treated. What support resources can you secure to help them process the news? If you were in their shoes, what information/resources would you need to be able to process the information?
  5. Keep your door open. As with any bad news, people go through a wide range of emotions as they process the new reality. From shock and disbelief to disengagement, anger, and acceptance, understand that from one day to the next you will need to support employees as they process their emotions. Keep an open door so they feel comfortable expressing their current emotional state as they cope with the news.

Finally, be prepared for anything. Some employees may yell, or cry, or even walk out of the room. Be prepared for regrettable losses, as well. Bad news leads to disengagement and, ultimately, to more employees who are open to considering new opportunities. Think strategically about the employees who are critical to your success and put a retention plan in place to balance the bad news with some new opportunities. Similarly, find ways to cope with the news yourself because delivering bad news takes an emotional toll on the messenger as well.