The Better Way To Break Bad News

The bad news is that you’re probably breaking bad news the wrong way. The good news: These four steps can fix that.

The Better Way To Break Bad News
[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

Here’s some bad news: You’re probably delivering bad news the wrong way. Every company, team, and manager hits setbacks, and it’s always somebody’s job to break the unpleasant news to others. But the way to talk about even the toughest turns for the worse isn’t simply to put a falsely positive spin on what went wrong and what it means.

Sharing upbeat stories is easy, after all. We like giving and receiving praise. So it makes sense why some leaders tend to downplay the consequences of bad news or withhold it altogether until it’s too late. Instead, there are ways to have difficult conversations with your team that leave them with an accurate grip on the facts while still motivating everyone to take the initiative and bounce back. Here are a few tips.

1. Limit Your Negative Language

When you’re discussing setbacks with your team, be careful not to use negative expressions–like “can’t” or “won’t”–that sound too categorical. For instance, instead of announcing, “I can’t get the budget for this project,” try, “Our current funding levels mean that we’ll all have to be more resourceful, starting with the project we’re working on right now.” Both convey the predicament accurately, but one frames it like a dead end, while the other points the way forward.

This goes for news concerning individuals, too. Rather than saying, “I won’t be promoting you into this new position,” you can simply say, “I’ve thought about it, and keeping you in your present role makes more sense to me right now.” Between the lines, it’s the difference between, “Sorry, deal with it!” and “This is where things stand for the moment, but they can change.”

Another word to watch for is “no”–as in “no way,” “no problem,” “no good,” “that’s a ‘no’,” or “I have no idea.” Instead, use “yes” and other positives like, “yes, there’s a way to do it” and “I do have an idea about how to work through this.” Instead of talking about “problems,” talk about “challenges”; instead of “obstacles,” “opportunities.”

Again, this doesn’t mean cloaking bad news in euphemisms–it means focusing on their consequences and your collective response to them.

2. Make Sure It Isn’t Personal

Always avoid personal barbs. Most managers know it’s totally unprofessional to tell a direct report, “That was stupid of you,” but many express their displeasure with phrases like, “you disappointed me” or “you let me down.” Fair enough–you’re only being honest.

But don’t forget that these expressions can still hurt people and make it harder for them to do better. They subtly brand people as untrustworthy and tear down the very self-confidence they’ll need in order to do better next time. Personal insults, however watered down, are counterproductive. You’ll more often than not end up with angry team members who function well below their potential.

Don’t throw darts at other people who aren’t in the room, either. It may be tempting to find a target to criticize when things go wrong (and sometimes it really is your client’s fault), but if you offload the blame to others, you immediately undercut your own team’s ability to take ownership and fix the problem. Saying that a customer who didn’t accept your team’s proposal is a “jerk” or “power hungry” sets a bad example in organizations where cooperation is paramount.

3. Spend More Time On The High Ground

Think of every conversation as covering a certain amount of “terrain.” It’s okay to spend some time wandering around on the low ground, but you’ll want to scramble up to the heights eventually–and loiter there longer. During tough times, the negative tends to dominate, getting bigger and bigger as it all rolls downhill.

That’s all the more reason why leaders need to keep the negatives to a minimum and keep the conversation firmly rooted to the higher ground. Naturally, you want to be open and transparent if there’s been a problem. State the situation as clearly as you can (without being accusatory), but once you’ve identified the issue, focus on the solutions, teamwork, collaboration, and what the future can look like if you pull together.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Keep the negatives to a quarter or, at most, a third of the conversation. And don’t let others draw you back into the weeds. Your team members may need to express their frustration and pessimism at first, but it’s your job as their boss to help everyone pull themselves up by their bootstraps. By the end of the conversation, all parties should be looking ahead.

4. End On An Upside

When crafting your message, start with the negative and end with the positive. You might say, “Last year was tough –with our sales numbers were below what we’d expected—but I’m confident we can make up that loss and reach our goals for this year.” Similarly, if you’re heading into a client pitch, you’d be foolish to say to your boss, “That’s one tough customer. He’s never open to any of our new products.” It’s better to say, “This will be pretty challenging, but I’ll give it my all.”

Never forget to make this transition. If you’re announcing layoffs, don’t hit your listeners with, “This is a really hard day for all of us–for you, for me, and for our company.” Indeed it is! But statements like that may only make a bad situation worse; after all, is it really equally bad for the people who are keeping their jobs as it is for those who are losing them?

Instead, realistically present the situation, and then move toward a solution, ending on a positive. For example, “I have some sobering news to share that will affect all of you. But I want to share it with you myself so we can work through it together as a team.” The difference here isn’t dramatic–bad news is bad news–but it helps to lay the groundwork of encouragement and openness to talk honestly about what’s happening and why.

That’s something the best leaders always do–in good times and bad.

About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders.

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