How to Deliver Bad News to Good People

Maybe you have to inform your star performer that she won’t be getting a well-deserved raise. Or perhaps you have to tell your team that projects are cancelled and people are being laid off. How do break news like that? What do you say?

One thing is for sure: you cannot not communicate. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away and leaving things to the rumor mill won’t win respect for your leadership skills. Here’s how to make a bad news experience more positive, both for you and for the employees you’re addressing.

1. Get your ducks in a row

Specifically, you need to know how the outcome was reached, who was consulted, what other options were on the table, and how the decision-maker reached her final decision. Your employees will ask questions, so take some time to pre-empt their concerns and be confident in your understanding of the answers. This will help you to rehearse what you’re going to say before you share the news.

One simple and powerful exercise is to ask yourself, how would you feel if this news was coming at you? What questions would you ask? What kind of support would you need? Make a list of any points to cover with specific information and be sure to have the facts at your fingertips.

2. Choose your words carefully

If you’re a Feeling type, you will probably be tempted to sugarcoat the bad news in order to minimize conflict. But research suggests that people on the receiving end would much rather get it directly, with no buffer, than sit through your politeness and pussyfooting around a difficult issue. So don’t beat around the bush. Avoiding the crux of the issue can cause your message to become lost, which may cause bigger problems down the line.

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for sensitivity. Delivering bad news in a way that’s insensitive to your employee can multiply its misery. Like any speech, you need to strike a balance between empathy and clarity. Rehearse beforehand to make sure you get the word choice just right.

3. Explain how the decision was made, but don’t disclose your own views

Research suggests that people are more willing to accept bad news if they believe the decision-making process was fair. After delivering the news, you might explain to your team the process that was followed, the people involved in the decision-making, and how the outcome was reached. That’s why it’s so important to get these ducks in a row before you open the conversation.

If you don’t agree with the decision, by all means speak to higher ups, but don’t share your feelings with the team. Employees are more likely to be hurt and upset by the decision if they think it's so unfair that even you don’t agree with it. If you need to acknowledge your disappointment in order to maintain the respect of your team, then add something like, “This isn’t ideally where we wanted to end up, but you can see the steps we took to get here.”

4. Legitimize emotions, but don’t allow for debate

Bad news triggers strong emotions and you must always prepare for the individual or group’s reaction and listen to their concerns. It’s part of your job to absorb your team’s anger, shock or disappointment. What you shouldn’t do, is allow for debate. The decision is made and it cannot be undone. There’s no benefit to be had by reopening the merits of the decision.

Be sure to consider your own emotional needs in this scenario. We don’t often think of managers as suffering, but a 2006 study of Boeing managers and a follow-up study three years later showed that managers tasked with delivering the bad news of the company’s mass layoffs experienced a battery of emotional and stress-related symptoms. Make sure you have a support network who will take care of you as much as you are taking care of the team.

5. Focus on the future

Once you have delivered the news, take a break to let the recipient process the information. After a suitable cooling off period, reconvene to discuss ways to help the employee or team move forward. It’s a good idea to engage the recipient in the problem-solving. For example, you might say something like: “How do we move forward to make sure you get the promotion next year?” This puts the person in the driving seat and lets him know that you’re a supportive partner in whatever happens next.

Summing it up

While no one likes to deliver bad news, it’s something that most managers have to do at some stage in their career. Whether it’s announcing company redundancies, or telling an employee that they’re not going to get a promotion, it can sometimes take all you have to get the right words out in the most appropriate way. Even after the deed is done, there’s a chance that you’ll beat yourself up, wondering if you could have handled the situation better.

While there’s no perfect way to deliver bad news, it definitely helps to explain how the decision was fairly made. Focusing on the future is another plus, since this encourages the recipient to focus on the positives that may result from the situation. When you make an effort to be encouraging, the bad news may no longer be seen as bad news, but as an opportunity to move forward to future success.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writer and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. She lives with her ENTX husband and children in Yorkshire, UK, where she drinks a lot of tea and loves winding people up. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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