Unwanted stuff happens and it can affect individuals, teams, and/or an entire organization. Whether it’s poor performance that needs to be addressed, customer complaints that go too far, or product initiatives that don’t go as expected, unwanted stuff can produce unwanted results. How you respond to the unwanted stuff determines the results.
I’ve seen managers go to great lengths to avoid having the “bad news” conversation. I’ve talked with many employees who were given a cursory “this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong” type of “feedback” and told to straighten up.
Bad news is ugly, distasteful, and no one wants to give it. But, the reality is, there are occasions when we have to. So, how can we do it effectively and with much less pain for both sides?
1. Don’t delay! Putting off giving “bad” news can be costly. Conditions can continue to worsen; poor behavior becomes more entrenched each time it’s used. And it can cost the company money in turnover, lost productivity, and poor customer service.
2. Reframe. When we put a negative spin on news, it narrows the focus of our brain. This is a neurological reaction associated with danger. Our pupils actually get smaller to narrow visual focus. Our heart pounds, we get short of breath, and we may even sweat. Coming to a conversation in this state of mind does not allow for the bearer of the news to hear the other person, or to look for solutions. It closes your mind.
Instead, look at this news in a different light. What are the opportunities in this situation? Get curious about the other person’s perspective, other options that may be available. What has been overlooked? What are the opportunities presented in this situation? Going in with a positive mindset will prevent future difficult conversations around the same topic because you will be more open to hearing input from the other person(s). Then together, you can make better decisions about next steps.
3. Prepare. Bad news should never be a surprise. There should always be conversations that give the other person(s) a “heads-up” before the “final” news is delivered. As you are reframing to get a more positive mindset, prepare questions that will invite employee input about what works, what doesn’t, and what they think should happen to fix it. Consult any stakeholders or influencers to see if anything has been overlooked. Gather any needed information to support the news. This may include: documentation of goals met and not met, statistics, sales records, and representative customer or co-worker feedback. Consider rehearsing delivery of the news with a trusted person who will give you opportunities to think about a variety of potential reactions of the person who will be receiving this information. That gives you the opportunity to think about how you can respond rather than react.
4. Hold the conversation with respect and compassion in a way that allows the receiver to maintain dignity. Locate a private place for the conversation. Remember that the more serious the news, the more need there is for a face-to-face meeting. Before you walk into the meeting, intentionally put your own emotions aside and focus on seeking resolution. Keep the conversation positive. Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. Invite input from the person(s) about their perspective of the situation. Bring a few ideas about solutions, but more importantly, bring questions to solicit solution ideas from the receiver.
If the news is about termination of employment, preface the conversation with a statement such as, “There’s no easy way to say this…” Offer an explanation of the facts. “These were your goals and you haven’t followed through.” “This was the budget for the project and we are out of money.” Be compassionate, not emotional. Let the person grieve. If needed, have a “script” such as one of the statements above that you can keep repeating.
If you are correcting performance, build commitment and support by asking first what they think is going well, and what challenges they are having. Then ask, “Tell me about (the problem).” Together decide what should happen moving forward, and get a commitment in writing. This can be in the form of a written goal. Then, as the leader, your job will be to provide the resources, oversight, and accountability checks so the person can be successful in reaching the goal.
In all difficult conversations, focus on the positives – lessons learned, opportunities to try something new. This helps employees stay productive, upbeat, and future-oriented. End with positive, hopeful statements. Document conversations to help with future communication, evaluations, or questions.
5. Follow up. Hold employees accountable by asking often how things are going on the specifics you discussed. Ask where they are having challenges so you can work together to create success. Don’t assume it is an employee’s disposition that keeps them from success. They just simply may not know or understand how. Provide the support that will be the most beneficial to reaching the goal.
Tough conversations come in all shapes and sizes. While some have been highlighted above, there are many more scenarios that you may encounter. After all, unwanted stuff does happen. Do you know how to deliver bad news? Do you know how to get others to respond, not react? If you need help communicating bad news in a good way, contact Joy at Joy@MaximizeYourLeadership.com.
About Joy Humbarger
Joy, CEO and founder of Maximize Your Leadership, is considered to be one of Kansas City’s leading trainers and coaches on the ONE thing that changes everything! With more than 30 years of experience in the education and leadership fields, Joy is an expert in transforming mindsets to achieve better business results. She is the author of “Coaching the F___!! Out of Change,” a chapter in The Change 11, a national collection of tips and stories to empower others to take their leadership to the next level. She provides individual and group leadership coaching. To schedule a training, workshop or consultation with Joy, email Joy@MaximizeYourLeadership.com.