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How to break bad news

There is lots of advice out there on how to sack an individual, but a boss who needs help on how to break bad news to a group, or an entire company, is pretty much alone.

Many handle such a situation badly, but even if it is done with skill and diplomacy, announcing bad news will result in anxiety, a loss of productivity and a possible stampede for the exit.

Kevin Daley is an executive coach at CommunispondInc. and author of Talk Your Way to the Top, who has just come up with a four-part plan for presenting disappointing news to employees, whether it concerns missed targets, relocation, a cancelled Christmas party, or redundancies.

1. Do it as soon as possible.
Bad news travels fast and until an official statement is forthcoming, speculation will be rife, so it is best to head off rumours quickly. A leader can take control by explaining exactly what is happening and its implications. Employees need to see someone being forthright and in charge.

Email might offer the speed and control you want, but it is definitely the coward’s way out. You should break the news at a meeting for everyone who will be affected, preferably early in the day, to give employees time to digest the news and ask their questions. Even if doing it last thing Friday afternoon gives everyone the weekend to mull things over, it will make you look evasive.

2. Speak candidly.
Employees should be told everything that can be told. If you do not know the full extent of the impending change, it is important to say so, and as time goes by, if there is nothing new to announce, tell everyone, to avoid an anxiety-feeding information vacuum.

No manager wants to look weak and sometimes this makes them appear uncaring when delivering bad news. It is important to be compassionate, but do not apologise for your bad news, or talk at length about how bad it is making you feel.

Daley says, that in order to come across as credible and sincere, it is important to look the audience in the eye, which can’t be done by reading from a speech. Practise the speech until you can deliver it unscripted. Body language is just as important as the words and probably has a stronger impact on the audience.

3. Paint the big picture.
Start the presentation by putting it in context, but do it quickly, because too much background detail can make you look insecure about the news you are delivering. If you played a part in what went wrong, or took a decision that led to painful consequences for your employees, admit it.

It is important to assure employees that management has a strategy for overcoming hard times and to ask for their support. Do not misrepresent the situation, but remain optimistic. Emphasise what is being done to combat the problem and what, specifically, management will be doing to spare their employees pain.

The manager should be prepared to tell everyone what their role will be and assure them that they will have a voice in future planning.

4. Plan for questions.
Even an execellent presentation can be offset by an awkward Q&A session. Anticipate likely questions and be prepared with concise and credible answers.

If a question is complicated, rephrase it to simplify, without changing its meaning. If a question is angry, restate it in neutral language, keep control of your emotions and answer respectfully.

As you answer questions, start by looking at the questioner, then take in the rest of the audience to show the answer is meant for everyone. You can prevent unfriendly questioners from asking repetitive follow-up questions, and give more people an opportunity to ask questions, by looking at the opposite part of the room as you finish your answer and take a question from there.

Delivering bad news is one of the hardest things a manager will have to do, but by handling the challenge well, you can mobilise your troops to help achieve your goals and show senior management how well you can lead when things get tough.

Nigel Phillips

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