Friday, 13 September 2013

A dozen tips on delivering bad news effectively and humanely

We keep hearing in the news that the recession is over and that things are getting better out there. I am not a conspiracy theorist but I am not sure how true that is. It's a bit like the weather forecast - I am always deeply suspicious as to whether good weather forecasts for bank holidays are more related to influencing spending and travel over the holiday period rather than the weather itself. 

But one thing is for sure. Organisations will always need to look at how they spend their money and, from time to time this will mean looking at structures and whether they could be more effective. In some organisations this happens more often than can possibly be constructive, whilst in others the structure should have probably been changed before they got into their current set of difficulties! Change is here to stay, to use a very old cliche.

Now I've been around the block more than a few times and I have seen restructures done very well and others done appallingly badly. One of the common failures in making change in staffing levels and structures is poor communication with the staff team at the time of giving the 'bad news', so I thought it might be helpful if I highlighted what I think is best practice so that, if you need to deliver bad news, you have some helpful hints. The same tips apply whether you are dealing with one or 101 people.

  • For me the key thing is preparation. You need to prepare what you are going to say, so that you are confident, credible, concise and congruent. If you fluff your lines and appear nervous and uneasy staff will pick up on this. They need to understand what you are saying rather than be distracted by your demeanour and behaviour. Digesting bad news is not easy when you are on the receiving end so you need to ensure you are as clear as possible. You also need to be prepared for anger and disbelief, and to have prepared for any question you are likely to be asked, including any curve balls.

  • Choose the right setting. Ensure you choose the right place for the meeting, and that it is confidential and as comfortable as possible. 

  • You should try to assess the feelings of the group early on. Are they surprised by this news or do they seem as though they were expecting it?

  • Don't delay giving bad news. In almost every situation, the longer you leave it, the worse it will get. Thou shalt not procrastinate! 

  • Don't hide the facts. Do not gloss over the reasons behind the bad news. This just causes suspicion and mistrust. If the bad news is as a result of poor organisational decisions, you need to acknowledge that if you want to maintain trust. At the same time don't bewilder people with too many facts and figures, as they will just be overwhelmed.

  • Put it in writing. As we have already acknowledged, hearing bad news is tough and people can only take in small amounts of information. Putting the facts and the rationale behind the bad news is easier to digest after the meeting, and you can also provide helpful Q&As.

  • Don't use manipulation. Be as straightforward as you can be. If you need to take personal responsibility for the bad news, do this. Don't blame it on a third party, or treat it as though you are delivering the bad news on behalf of someone else, unless of course you are. Whilst researching this blog I came across a piece of work by Michael Grinder called 'How Not To Get Shot'. I normally like Grinder's work; he has done some really good stuff on communication skills, but I think the approach he takes to delivering bad news is just a bit manipulative. The link I have provided is only two pages, so make up your own mind.

  •  Be congruent. You are delivering bad news - now is not the time to be bright and breezy and to be making pleasantries or joking. Make sure your voice tone is credible rather than conversational, don't smile or laugh nervously and be concise and direct. Treat your audience with the respect and dignity they deserve.

  • Always justify the reasons behind the bad news. Give concrete reasons, not waffle.

  • Look for the positives. Don't try to put a spin on it; you will not get a good response. But if there are any positives, make sure you include them. 

  • Similarly be solution focused. If it is likely, for example, that someone is going to lose their job, point out what support can be provided, talk about what other opportunities there might be in the organisation. Explore the alternatives at the appropriate time. 

  • Finally, follow up. If you promise to do something after the meeting, e.g. circulate a briefing, do it straight away. If you said you will be available to discuss things individually, make yourself available.

The above tips are all tried and tested by me. They work. Delivering bad news is never easy, but it it it can be far less stressful and deliver the desired results if you do it well. We all like to be liked, even though I have heard many a manager say 'I'm not here to make friends'. Delivering bad news effectively can also help you maintain good relationships at work. 

Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Some useful links:

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