How to Soften the Blow of Bad News for an Employee

You can learn to deliver bad news is a way that softens the blow, by increasing the chances that it will be perceived as fair.


One of the toughest parts of being a leader is having to
tell your people what they don’t want to hear.


No, you won’t be
getting a promotion at this time.

There aren’t going to
be any bonuses this year.

Your request for a new
hire has been denied.

I know you already
feel overworked, but here are 3 new projects you’ll need to complete this

There’s no way to disguise the fact that bad news is bad
news, so you can never hope to entirely remove its sting. But you can learn to deliver bad news is a way that softens the blow, by increasing the chances that it will be
perceived as fair.
To do that, you’ll need to tailor your
message to the motivational style of your employee.


Some people tend to see their goals as opportunities for gain or advancement. In other
words, they are focused on all the great things that will happen for them when
they succeed–the benefits and rewards.
Psychologists call this a promotion
focus, and research shows that promotion-minded people are more motivated by
optimism and praise, and more likely to embrace risk and excel at creativity
and innovation.

Others tend to see their goals as opportunities to avoid loss, to fulfill their responsibilities, and to stay safe. They don’t want
to lose what they have worked so hard to achieve, and worry about all the bad
things that will happen if they make a mistake. Psychologists call this a prevention focus, and the prevention-minded are more motivated by
criticism and the looming possibility of failure than they are by applause and
a sunny outlook.
Prevention-focused people are more risk-averse, but their work is also
more thorough, more accurate, and more carefully-planned.

The key to enhancing the perceived fairness of bad news is
to match the framing of your delivery to
the motivational style of the listener
. For instance, imagine you are informing your team of an
upcoming company-wide reorganization–news that is generally met with groans
and dismay. You could justify
the reorganization using positive
framing (e.g., the reorganization will “make the company more profitable,”) which
highlights potential gains, or you could use a negative framing (e.g., the reorganization will “prevent further
financial losses,”) which emphasizes avoiding unwanted outcomes.

New research shows that promotion-minded employees judge bad
news to be significantly more fair when it is delivered using positive framing,
while prevention-minded employees are more amenable to negative framing.

For example, in one study, promotion-minded university
students judged a proposed tuition increase to be significantly more clear, candid, truthful, and reasonable when it was justified as allowing
the university to “provide better education, strengthen courses, and retain


Prevention-minded students, on the other hand, preferred the
tuition hike to be described as a way of “avoiding deterioration
of quality, cuts to courses, and loss of faculty.”

In another study, participants read an article about (real)
layoffs at Daimler Chrysler.
Promotion-minded readers rated the layoffs as significantly more fair
and reasonable when they were described as an opportunity to “promote market
share,” while prevention-minded
readers were more favorably impressed when the layoffs were justified as “preventing loss of market share.”

So next time you find yourself having to take a project out
of the hands of one team member who’s clearly floundering, and transferring it
to another, you’ll know whether to describe it as an “opportunity to devote
your energy to other assignments” or as a way to “avoid being dangerously
overloaded with work.”

Whenever you deliver bad news to an employee, always start
by diagnosing his motivational style–is he a risk –taker, or
risk-averse? Are his strengths speed and creativity,
or accuracy and thoroughness? Know who you are talking to, and you’ll
know what you need to say to put bad news in the best possible light.

For more on feedback and motivation, check out Heidi’s new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Follow Heidi on Twitter @hghalvorson.