How to Deliver Bad News

Delivering bad news can be one of the worst parts of the job for a manager. In this article, I provide suggestions for how to do it in a way that maximizes your chances of keeping your team engaged and achieving a successful long-term outcome.

In past roles, like most managers, I’ve had to lay off poor performers. I also had a couple of instances where I had to lay off whole teams of people. These are some of my least favorite management memories. But I think of the manager’s role as being like a company director’s role. Your duty is to serve the best interests of the company. It’s not always fun. But that’s part of being a manager.

Different types of bad news.

When people think of bad news, they often think of the type of news that impacts the whole company, such as industry downturns, layoffs, and cost-cutting.

On a smaller scale, but often just as traumatizing, is the tough job of letting specific individuals go, particularly if they are well-liked. However, as business thought leader, Peter Drucker advised,
Leaders owe it to the organization and their fellow workers, not to tolerate nonperforming people in important jobs”. (Personally, I can’t think of any job that is not important).

No matter how friendly and likable someone is, if you have provided them with the appropriate training, mentoring, and support and they still cannot achieve the required performance standard within an agreed time frame, they should be removed from the team. Managers must hold people accountable. You are not doing the person, your team, or your customers any favors by carrying these poor performers.

As I wrote in a previous article, “Don’t mistake loyalty for performance“. People who were a good fit when you were a small, early-stage company may not be the right fit when your company grows and scales. The people who got you here, may not be the people who can get you to the next level. They might have been an A-Player once, but performance expectations have outgrown their capabilities. Now this person is a B-Player holding your team back.

It’s a tough decision to remove people who are considered “loyal” employees.

Trickier decisions involve letting people go who can achieve the performance standard, but who are not a good fit for your culture. This is where it is important to have a set of Core Values that provide clear and explicit “rules for how we do things around here”. If a person cannot demonstrate your Core Values consistently, they are undermining the culture, and they too should be removed from the team.

Another form of bad news includes the shelving of major product lines, service offerings, or projects because they are failing to deliver the agreed return on investment. As I often say to clients, “You have to prune the rose bush if you want to create beautiful blooms”. I encourage my clients to go through a disciplined process on an annual basis to review which products, services, and activities are Core, Context, and Non-Core to their future success.

Effective management calls for continual pruning and weeding. Unless something has been an outright failure, it can be difficult to convince managers that the products or services they are involved in should be abandoned. Or the people they originally hired should be let go. Vested interests and egos tend to perpetuate the status quo. Many companies are carrying “zombie” products, zombie services, and (yes) zombie people who limp along, never quite making the grade.

These are tough decisions to make because they run counter to what most managers have been judged on throughout their careers, which is to fix and grow things. To coach and grow people. How many resumes brag about product lines they discontinued, projects they pulled the plug on, or teams they made redundant?

Peter Drucker called it “purposeful abandonment” and it is one of the most overlooked aspects of leadership. The ability to have a long-term strategic viewpoint and make the tough calls on these “zombie” products, services, and people defines whether you are truly ready for a senior leadership role.

Delivering bad news.

Let’s face it. If you have a heart, it’s tough to deliver bad news to the people who are directly affected. There is also the potential for collateral damage, where the motivation and engagement of other people in the company can be negatively impacted if you handle the process poorly.

If you need to deliver the type of bad news that impacts large numbers of people, most research recommends that you address the issue quickly. If you don’t, rumors can run rampant, and people will be living in an unproductive state of anxiety, wondering what it means for them personally.

Regardless of the scale, here is my suggested process to control how the bad news is delivered, and maximize your potential for a successful long-term outcome.

  • Get out in front of any rumors so employees are not left stewing and speculating
  • Be open and honest
  • Describe the current reality using facts and data
  • Deliver the bad news straight up – don’t beat around the bush
  • Clearly state the decision and the reasons for the decision
  • Keep your comments short and on point (use notes to stay on message)
  • Don’t waffle or sugarcoat your message
  • Describe how people will be affected
  • Allow a moment for the news to sink in
  • Allow time for questions and feedback
  • Be empathetic to their concerns. Show that you care, but don’t backslide
  • Treat people with dignity
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep
  • Switch emphasis to describing “a better future” for the company
  • Provide an overview of your plan going forward (you do have a plan right?)
  • Assign accountability to high-status individuals in the company to implement the plan
  • Specify what actions will be taken right now (“the one thing“)
  • Get people focused on taking action so they don’t stew on the loss
  • Drive accountability to ensure follow-through on the plan
  • Provide regular weekly updates on progress

Being the bearer of bad news is never fun, but by following this process, hopefully, you can increase your likelihood of a successful long-term outcome; one that maximizes the engagement of your team.

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Until next time…
Stephen