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Need to Deliver Bad News to Employees? Science Says Do This

A new study shows the best approach for sharing bad news

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BY Alison Davis - 15 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It's every leader's or manager's least favorite task: delivering bad news. Maybe your company is closing a facility. Or letting people go. Or you have an employee who isn't getting that coveted promotion, or has been denied an overseas posting, or can't take an expensive training course.

In any case, your impulse is to soften the blow. After all, you're a caring person, and you'd like to make a difficult situation easier. So you start the conversation by talking about something else. And when it's time to deliver the news, you try to sugar-coat it.

 

That's the wrong approach, according to new research by professors at Brigham Young University and the University of South Alabama. In fact, the worst way to deliver bad news is to beat around the bush.

The best way? Rip off the Band-Aid.

In the study, conducted by BYU linguistics professor Alan Manning and the University of South Alabama's Nicole Amare, study participants received a range of bad-news scenarios. For each scenario, they were given a choice of two approaches, then asked to select their preferred approach.

Participants preferred clarity and directness--and did not find a buffer made the bad news any easier to take.

This conclusion doesn't surprise me because it's consistent with what my firm has learned from decades of research with employees.

Employees tell us that they want honest communication that treats them like adults. They know that bad news is sometimes unavoidable, but they'd rather hear the straight story than have someone try to spin the truth.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind when delivering bad news to employees:

  1. Start by understanding every question an employee will ask--and make sure you've figured out the answers. I often develop a document with Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Doing so helps you work through all of the issues involved, and helps you make decisions about how you will communicate these issues.
  2. Avoid Corporate Speak. This is not the time to disguise the facts in a thicket of 50-dollar words and jargon. If people are losing their jobs, for example, that's a layoff--not "right-sizing."
  3. Provide context, but lead with the what--then follow up with the why. When one CEO was announcing that the company's headquarters would be closing, he started his presentation with a long preamble about why the change was necessary. But employees really weren't listening because they were waiting for the bad-news shoe to drop. It is valuable to share reasoning because people are more willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the decision making was fair. But start with the actual news, then share the why behind it.
  4. Show that you care. Of course you're stressed about the fact that you have to share bad news, but that doesn't mean you have to be cold and unfeeling. Your employees may be angry at you, but it's your job to be as calm and sympathetic as possible.
  5. Allow for venting. It's understandable if your employee becomes emotional. And his/her response may be irrational. But don't get into a debate or over-explain. Just listen.

You can't make bad news less painful, but you can deliver it in the most respectful way possible.

 

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