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How to Share Bad News in Tough Times

Betty Lochner blog post

People want to know what’s going on.

The most important thing to remember when sharing bad news is that people have an innate need to be kept in the loop during difficult times. It is human nature to want to know what’s going on. And if you don’t communicate what you know when you know it, people will speculate and start rumors that won’t be helpful.

When sharing bad news, most leaders don’t communicate often and clearly enough to satisfy their employees. Keeping staff in the loop will translate into increased commitment. It will also reduce confusion, anxiety and even denial.

Employees are twice as likely to go the extra mile for their company and about four times as likely to recommend it to others if they’re satisfied with the ways it communicates difficult decisions and situations.

Ouch Point from Opinion Research Corp.

The Ouch Point survey broke down what was most likely to receive a positive response from employees:

  • Thorough explanations of the actions taken and the reasons behind the actions
  • Being kept informed of ongoing decisions and reasons for those decisions as the economy continues to toss and turn
  • Providing early indications of impending difficult decisions so employees are not caught off-guard
  • Open and honest communication
  • Providing regular updates through frequent communication

Whether directly or indirectly affected, employees require clear, unemotional information. They want to know what, why, when and how:

  • What is happening to me?
  • Why is it happening to me?
  • When will it happen?
  • How will I be affected?

All other information, no matter how well-intentioned, may actually do more harm than good by confusing or overly complicating the message.

Here are a few important ways you can improve your communication to others about difficult situations.

1. Be concise

Keep your comments short and on point. Don’t blather on, tell stories, or build up to a conclusion. Just state the purpose of your communication at the outset and then say what you need to say. Your audience is more likely to hear what you have to say if they are not trying to anticipate your next sentence or wade through a long dissertation. Just keep it simple.

2. Be clear and provide as much information as you can

Deliver the information in a way that can be easily explained to others. Over complicating information or using a bunch of jargon increases the chance that information will be misunderstood. And, when things aren’t clear, we tend to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. That’s the best way to start rumors that later need to be unraveled.

As managers, we often make the mistake of trying to break the news gently and to spare feelings. We may use words that express our own regret, or explain that the situation is beyond our control such as “we are all victims of the great recession.”

And while all that may be true, it provides more comfort to the giver than the receiver.

Whether directly or indirectly affected, employees really just want and need clear, unemotional information. They want to know the basics – what, why, when and how:

What is happening to me? Why is it happening to me? When will it happen to me? How will I be affected?

All other information, no matter how well meaning, may actually do more harm than good by causing confusion or overly complicating the message.

3. Take Questions

Make time for questions and be prepared to provide answers. There is nothing more frustrating than being offered the opportunity to ask questions and then receive incomplete, vague, inconsistent or inaccurate answers.  Be honest. People much prefer hearing the truth than trying to guess what’s really going to happen. Listen to what they need to say without interruption.

It’s okay to say “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”  Then do that.

4. Give Regular Updates

Not getting regular updates will have people over analyzing, speculating and worrying about things they probably don’t need to worry about. Even if you don’t have anything new to report, give at least a weekly update.  People crave regular information, even when there’s nothing new to report.  Assure your audience of what you know and when you knew it – and communicate new information as soon as you can.  Don’t let staff hear updates through the grapevine.

3. Write it down

After you’ve shared the news in person, put it all in writing and send it out as an email. The emotion of the moment often makes it difficult for people to fully understand everything that is being explained to them. And, even in the best of times, each of us processes information differently. Make sure you make hard copy versions available of all verbal communications, along with additional supporting documents and resources.

4. Follow up Resources

An ongoing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) resource on your company web site can be useful for capturing and sharing employee questions.

Make sure that there are appropriate resources available outside of your agency.  Anticipate needs and offer resources right up front – maybe it’s counseling,  job search workshops, or whatever fits the situation. Don’t wait for employees to show signs that they need support. Anticipate that they when they do and be ready for the inquiries.

As much as possible, provide employees with names and contact information for individuals or organizations that can provide them with further information or support. These can include internal HR and department contacts, benefit providers and outside support agencies. Check that the details you give out are accurate by actually testing phone numbers and email addresses.

5. Be Accessible

Your key to success is to keep communication open and to be accessible.  It will go a long way to sharing bad news in the best way possible.

Simple, but effective and open communication is always best.

Whether you are a new, aspiring, or seasoned manager, you know that managing people is one of the toughest – and most rewarding roles – that you will ever have. To learn more skills on how to become a better boss, check out Managers Essentials: How to Be a Better Boss. The next class starts on Sept. 1. Feel free to schedule a free consultation coaching session with me as well. 

Betty Lochner is a human resources consultant, business coach, and expert in workplace communications. She is the author of two books on communication, and a newly published journal, Intentional Gratitude.

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