Internal Comms 101: 5 Tips for Delivering Bad News in the Workplace

Delivering bad news at work is never easy. Whether you’re telling an employee they messed up a project, their performance is not up to scratch, they’re no longer welcome to work at the company, or there are redundancies on the horizon, it’s a horrible conversation to have, as things will no doubt get emotional. Why? Because humans have what’s known as a negativity bias. This means bad news hits us much harder than good news and stays with us much longer. So, you need to tread carefully when delivering it.

Your internal communication needs to be on point. Here are five tips to put into practice next time you have to be the bearer of bad news:

Prepare for the conversation

It might seem obvious, but this is one of the biggest mistakes people make when delivering bad news. As seasoned as you may be, don’t believe you can just walk in, improvise, and deliver negative news on the fly. The chances are, you’ll say something inappropriate. Make sure you walk into the meeting with clarity on the facts of the situation and how you’re going to handle it. There’s potential for the conversation to get heated and emotional, and, as the person delivering the message, it’s your responsibility to keep things calm and under control.

The key is preparation. You need to prepare what you’re going to say and prepare for the reaction. There could be tears, shouting or stunned silence. It’s your job to be prepared to handle any reaction professionally. If you get it wrong, it could damage your working relationship, credibility and reputation.

Be direct but compassionate

You don’t want to sugar-coat bad news. But you also don’t want to be cold or robotic in delivering it. To get the balance right, think about how doctors deliver bad news to patients. They use clear, direct language and stick to the facts, but deliver it with compassion and empathy. They’ll often open the conversation with, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this’, or ‘I know this is upsetting, I wish I had better news’. This is key, as empathy is an extremely powerful emotion. Then give patients time to digest the news and ask questions. Communicate like a doctor and you’re more likely to get the outcome you want.

Bonus Tip: Pay attention to your employee’s reaction and let it guide your response.

Get to the point

No leader enjoys delivering bad news. Even the most experienced can panic, ramble and start rationalising like crazy. You may have done this yourself. However, this nervous habit of rambling and justifying the bad news will make the situation worse. It’ll generate confusion and increase the likelihood of an aggressive reaction. If you’re making redundancies, for example, say so right away, then explain how and why. An awkward build-up to the ‘message’ will be painful for both of you. So get to the point, and when in doubt say less than you feel is necessary.

Allow them to vent

Once you’ve delivered the news, you need to give the individual or team some time to digest it and respond. No matter how uncomfortable you feel, your employees deserve the opportunity to have their say. So this is the time to listen. Allow them to shout, cry or go silent, and once the initial shock has passed, ask if they have any questions. You don’t want to get into an argument or debate, so keep your answers short, speak calmly, and stick to the facts.

Bonus Tip: If an employee demands further explanation, repeat variants of your message, but don’t add any new information. You’ll risk drifting away from your core message and losing control of the conversation. Similarly, resist the impulse to spin the bad news into a positive. Many people do this under pressure, but all it does is dilute the message and offer false hope.

Watch your body language

One of the biggest factors in whether an employee will listen to and accept bad news is how it’s delivered. Don’t underestimate the importance of your body language. Slumping your shoulders, avoiding eye contact, or fidgeting will send the wrong message. You’ll come across as aloof and uninterested.

A good rule of thumb is to sit opposite the person so you can maintain regular eye contact and lean forwards when you’re speaking. This body positioning demonstrates authority and empathy. 

Bad news may be difficult to deliver, but that doesn’t mean it should be delivered poorly. With these six tips, you should be primed to communicate bad news clearly, empathetically and respectfully in any situation.

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