How to Deliver Bad News

How to Deliver Bad News

Delivering bad news can be the worst part of the job for any 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.

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 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, then they should be removed from the team. Managers must hold people accountable. You are not doing them or your team (or your customers for that matter) any favors by carrying poor performers.

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”, so your people know exactly where they stand and can see for themselves whether or not they are the right behavioral fit for your culture. If a person cannot demonstrate your Core Values consistently, they are undermining the culture you are trying to build, and they too should be removed from the team.

Another form of bad news includes the shelving of major projects because they failed to deliver the results that were expected in the allotted time frame. As I often say to clients, “You have to prune the rose bush if you want to create beautiful blooms”. Periodically you should go through a disciplined process to review which products, services, and activities are Core vs Non-Core to your future success.

Effective management calls for continual pruning and weeding. Unless a strategic project has been an outright failure, it can be difficult to convince managers that activities they initiated or were are involved in should be abandoned. Vested interests and egos tend to perpetuate the status quo.

These are tough decisions to make because it runs counter to what most managers have been judged on throughout their careers, which is to fix and grow things. How many resumes brag about projects they pulled the plug on? Drucker called it “purposeful abandonment” and it is the most overlooked aspect of leadership. The ability to have a long-term strategic viewpoint and make the tough calls on these “zombie” projects 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 will run rampant, and your people will be living in an unproductive state of anxiety, wondering what it means for them personally.

Regardless of the scale, here is a 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
  • Describe the current reality
  • Be open and honest.
  • Don’t beat around the bush. Deliver the bad news upfront.
  • Keep your comments short and on point. Don’t waffle or sugarcoat your message.
  • Describe how people will be affected
  • Be empathetic to their concerns. Show them that you care.
  • Describe the options that were considered
  • Clearly state the decision that was made, and the reasons for the decision
  • Allow time for the news to sink in
  • Switch emphasis to describing “a better future”. But don’t make promises you can’t keep
  • Provide an overview of your plan going forward (you do have a plan right?)
  • Assign accountability to high-status individuals 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
  • Allow time for questions and feedback
  • 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 you can increase your likelihood of a successful long-term outcome; one that maximizes the engagement of your team.


Until next time…