Tough Times? Try These Tactics to Communicate Bad News

Linda Dulye's picture

For many organizations, the end of June marked the close of the second quarter, traditionally a time to assess performance-to-plan and make adjustments where necessary. Those “adjustments” sometimes can mean organizations need to communicate bad news to the workforce.

In good times and bad, the best leaders can inform, motivate and move forward using these tactics:

Have a disciplined process.  Many times we get calls from clients who need assistance to deliver unfavorable news.  In talking with them about their needs, we’re surprised to learn that there’s no communications infrastructure in place to support the sharing of information across the organization.  Have a communications strategy and design complementary tools and tactics that support the goals of your organization.  That way, when the need to communicate arises, you have a process at your disposal that you can leverage.

Be consistent.  Consistency in message delivery and the messages themselves are important elements of a good communications process.  Communications tools that are used regularly can reduce downtime caused by the “fear factor” of an upcoming announcement.  Consistency also provides leaders with a measure of flexibility when they know an opportunity to communicate is approaching on a daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.

Be honest; don’t sugarcoat.  When you have good news to deliver, you just can’t wait to share it, can you?  You tell your people every nuance and detail.  But all too often, when the news isn’t so favorable, we suddenly feel the need to sugarcoat—don’t.  Not only is sugarcoating unfair to everyone in the organization, it can also be a ticking time bomb for your credibility.  Someone knows the real story, particularly in these days of instant communications, and chances are that person won’t hesitate to communicate it to the world.  In addition, you want your people focused on the goals at hand and what it will take to achieve them.  If you create some fantasy scenario because you think your people “can’t handle the truth,” you’re setting up yourself and the people who depend on you for potential disappointment.

Position your managers and supervisors as informed members of the leadership team.  Share the information with your managers and supervisors so that they can be prepared to intelligently respond to employee concerns and questions.  Encourage them to hold “huddles” – short workplace meetings – where information can be shared and questions asked in a 2-Way, face-to-face setting.

Take the opportunity to measure.  If you use a town hall setting to deliver unfavorable news, take the opportunity to measure.  Don’t assume that all the responses will be negative just because the news was bad.  Use the session(s) as a chance to take the pulse of employees.  Ask questions that get at business knowledge and commitment.  What’s going well?  What’s not? Use the opportunity to gather data and feedback from your people.  That information can be used as the basis for subsequent communications materials and planning.  It will also provide  data that you can use as a baseline to determine in future meetings if you’re improving or backsliding.

Share feedback.  Give team members honest and candid feedback.  Let them know that their views count and that their voices are being heard.  Let them know what’s being done to address their issues and concerns.  When people know that their questions are being addressed,  the grapevine  is cut off at its roots. Reliable feedback further positions managers and supervisors as credible sources of information and as leaders who will take action when the need arises.

Nobody likes being the bearer of bad news.  However, there can be opportunity for improvement even in the delivery of bad news..  Don’t make an unfortunate situation worse by failing to communicate effectively.


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