4 Mistakes to Avoid When You Have to Deliver Bad News
One of the most important jobs of leaders is to tell people what’s going on, even when the news is bad. Leaders must be able to address everything from an individual performance issue to the denial of budget for new personnel or other resources, the loss of a client or project, even an existential threat to the business, such as a tariff or regulatory change.
The first time as a young manager that I fired someone, she had to ask me to be sure, “Are you firing me?” Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how to deliver bad news, and why any attempt to minimize the leader’s own discomfort usually leads to more confusion or damage than necessary. Here are four common mistakes that leaders may make if they haven’t had appropriate training or if they haven’t developed the confidence to lay out the situation clearly.
Letting the news leak out.
One of my clients who prefers to avoid conflict would take this route, mentioning bits and pieces of the situation in meetings or to other people on the assumption that the recipient would somehow “get the message.” But it’s awkward for other people to know what’s going on before the crucial individual does, and it’s confusing to the recipient of the bad news not to understand the entire situation clearly.
Some employees would miss the point altogether, and their behavior or performance would not improve. Plus, the leader looked weak and ineffectual. Now she prepares intensively before tough conversations, and if she isn’t confident that she can handle the situation smoothly, she partners with other executives to make sure that all the bad news can be delivered at once.
Swooping and "pooping."
Many leaders don’t realize that this is what they’re doing. They think they’re being direct and moving on, but for the recipient it can feel like someone just unloaded on them and then left them alone to clean up the mess. A new leader joined one of my clients to take over an existing team, and gave significant correction to almost every element of a large project that was already under way. He expected the recipients to recover quickly and go about their business despite the harshness of his feedback, and never really understood how severely some team members were demoralized by his behavior.
Just spending a few extra minutes with these team members, making a joint plan for next steps, tying up loose ends or expressing his appreciation for their commitment to the new changes could have made a huge difference to the people and the work that needed to be done after the “dump.” Luckily, stronger members of the team provided support to the others, but all of them remained somewhat wary and avoidant in anticipation of the leader unloading on them again.
Speaking for both sides.
Leaders who do this rather than giving the recipient time and encouragement to ask questions or share reactions are cueing the recipient to accept the bad news without protest or even much questioning. One senior leader I worked with used this approach for announcing reorganizations or changes in assignment as a way to relieve her own guilt and fear about causing distress to people she cared about as well as her own frustration and resentment that she even had to have this awkward conversation. Because she effectively spoke over employee questions or concerns, she would leave these interactions thinking that everything was fine and that her message had been well accepted, so there was no need for any kind of follow-up or monitoring.
Meanwhile, her employees often needed more information, support or reassurance to be able to accept the change or implement the new direction she had specified. Sometimes other executives were able to provide the necessary help, but in other cases, the changes stalled until someone developed the courage to go back to the leader, reopen the discussion and explain the barriers to implementation.
Related: How to Break Bad News to Clients
Expecting reciprocal pity and commiseration.
Years ago, some parents would say, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” before inflicting a spanking or worse as a technique for invalidating the child’s pain and distress while simultaneously justifying the harsh treatment. Leaders who behave this way are absolving themselves of responsibility for whatever the recipient has to suffer as well as for the problem itself. They’re acting like martyrs, and are self-servingly hoping that the recipient will thank them for the bad news instead of pushing back.
The leaders themselves may be truly suffering, however, if they’ve had to deliver bad news repetitively. They’re less likely to share that suffering with employees, however, if they can reframe their experience to simultaneously help the employees they are hurting, for example, by devoting extra time to the recipients of the bad news, treating them with respect and accommodating their needs as much as possible.
Effective leaders avoid these mistakes by taking ownership for the situation and acknowledging the impact of their announcements on the employees. When leaders act with clarity and compassion, rather than trying to pass the buck or the blame to someone else, it helps both the organization and the recipients of bad news to recover and move forward successfully.