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How to Soften the Blow of Bad News for an Employee

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 quarter.

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 faculty."

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.