Delivering Bad News Well: Prepare, Be Clear, Be Kind

by Jeri Cartwright and Lisa Davis
UtahPulse.com  12/03/2009

Layoffs. Disappointing earnings. Plant closings. Embezzlement. The way you communicate news of this ilk could make or break your career. Done badly, and your 15 minutes of fame may be those you never outlive. Done well, and your praises could be sung by pundits, reporters, employees and your boss.

So why do many executives fail to prepare for the day they are the bearer of bad, even tragic news? As the saying goes, stuff happens, and it will happen to your organization.

Delivering bad news well is both a science and an art. These suggestions should give you some guidance on how to prepare yourself to do it well.

Before the Bad –

“It is much easier to communicate bad news to someone who is used to hearing from you regularly...—not only at monthly meetings—[and] especially during tough economic times,” said Communication Strategist Matt Eventoff. Following are a few ideas compiled from Eventoff, other experts, and our own experience on how to prepare yourself and your organization for tough times.

Creating an environment and processes that facilitate healthy communication and feedback will make a huge difference in how well your organization reacts to both the catalyzing incident, and the way it was communicated.

The Deed

Once you’ve created the ideal environment for the big discussion, there’s still a lot of work to do to get it right.

Be the One: If you have bad news, be the one to break it to others. According to Eventoff, “Trying to hide bad news is a) no longer possible, and b) will absolutely destroy all credibility.” Look at the situation as an opportunity to tell your story on your terms. If you wait too long and the information gets out through other sources first, which is increasingly likely given the 24/7 news cycle and social media outlets, you will spend ridiculous amounts of time doing damage control. And despite the good work you might do in this mode, it’s extremely difficult to fully recover the reputation and relationships you’ve already lost.

Be Brave, Be Clear: One of the two natural human responses to danger is flight. And fleeing the scene, getting into a bunker, or at least trying to hide behind niceties, is one of the most common impulses that ignites as we sit across the table from someone to whom we must tell bad news. “Delivering disappointing information…is often sugar-coated…given in non-direct ways or wrapped up in other neutral news. Many people aren’t experienced enough and to be frank, resilient enough to cope with the pressure. What frequently results is avoidance or a mumbled, poorly delivered message,” advises author and consultant Simon Stapleton.

In a handbook from the American Medical Association (AMA) titled ‘”Education for Physicians on End-of-Life Care,” the AMA instructs doctors on how to deliver life-and-death information to patients. Most of us will never have to communicate that kind of bad news, but the advice definitely applies. “Deliver information in a sensitive but straightforward manner. Say it and then stop... Use simple language… avoid technical jargon or euphemisms… well intentioned efforts to ‘soften the blow’ may lead to vagueness and confusion.”

Be Kind: As a business owner or manager, your first responsibility is to ensure the health of your organization. However, whenever you’re delivering bad news, the recipient will always be another person or group of people. Before you start, put yourself in their position. How will they receive the information? What do they need to know to accept and move past the news? How would you like to be treated if you were in their place? This doesn’t mean you should apologize or waffle. However, answering these questions yourself creates an environment of respect and compassion that will smooth the experience for everyone.

Be a Solution: When there’s bad news to communicate, a good manager can, or should be able to anticipate the questions and concerns that result. If you have to lay off employees, they’ll want to know about severance, benefits, and finding a new job. If you need to tell media about a plant closing, they’ll want to know how it will affect the local economy, and what it means for the future of the company. Be prepared with solutions to your audience’s concerns. An old rule of communication says that people can handle just about any bad news, as long as you give them tools to navigate the situation.

Bad news need not devastate you, your organization, or the people on the receiving end. Care, prepare thoroughly, execute well, and respect your audiences. Failing to do so can have far reaching effects that impact morale, media coverage, productivity, and your bottom line. It’s up to you.


Matt Eventoff at matteventoff.com

Education for Physicians on End-of-Life Care—Participant’s Handbook, American Medical Association

Fred Wilson, owner, Union Square Ventures at avc.com

Charles Day at thelookingglass.com

Josh Kopelmen at redeye.com


Article originally appeared at UtahPulse.com.

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