Delivering bad news to your team properly
Giving feedback to your employees, particularly when their performances fall short of expectations, is one of the most critical roles you play as a manager. For most people, it’s also one of the most dreaded. Such conversations can be very unpleasant—emotions can run high, tempers can flare. And so, fearing that an employee will become defensive and that the conversation will only strain the relationship, the boss all too often inadvertently sabotages the meeting by preparing for it in a way that stifles honest discussion. This is an unintentional—indeed, unconscious—habit that’s a byproduct of stress and that makes it difficult to deliver corrective feedback effectively.
The good news is that these conversations don’t have to be so hard. By changing the mindset with which you develop and deliver negative feedback, you can greatly increase the odds that the process will be a success—that you will have productive conversations, that you won’t damage relationships, and that your employees will make real improvements in performance. In the pages that follow, I’ll describe what goes wrong during these meetings and why. I’ll look in detail at how real-life conversations have unfolded and what the managers could have done differently to reach more satisfying outcomes. As a first step, let’s look at the way bosses prepare feedback—that is, the way they frame issues in their own minds in advance of a discussion. What does a leader have to do when bad news has to be shared?
1. Know your audience
In public speaking, knowing your audience in advance is critical. In times of uncertainty, it’s quintessential, regardless through what channel of communication. Do a thorough strategic analysis of who you are communicating too. What are their concerns, questions, or interests? What do they need an immediate answer to? You might use language such as, “I know many of you may be thinking…” The quicker you can address what’s on their mind, the quicker you will be able to calm them down. If you are not addressing their most pressing interests, they might not even be listening to you.
2. Thorough Research
In times of hardship and stress, it is easier to fall prey to misinformation, which can be especially destructive. Seek out credible sources of information, and read the information fully before distilling it into clear, concise language. Share those links with others, so that they too have a credible resource.
3. Set up specific ‘next steps’
In times of uncertainty, it’s helpful to provide your team with tangible action items. Discussing your own next steps or recommending next steps to your audience gives them a sense of control so they feel like they are contributing to stabilisation. Use language such as, “Here are the steps we are taking” or “Here’s what you can do” to demonstrate action.
Communicating through uncertainty is an essential leadership skill, regardless of whether or not you have a formal leadership role. In fact, the ability to communicate through uncertainty is part of what demonstrates to others your leadership readiness. Use the aforementioned steps to first find your own sense of focus and then allow yourself to transmit that reassurance to others.
4. Speak honestly
You can speak with confidence even without 100% certainty. You can confidently express doubt or uncertainty, while still sounding like you are in control of the situation. You might say, “Reports are still coming in, but what we understand so far is this…” Communicate frequently with your audience, even without news to report, so that they know you are actively following the issue. A fantastic communication expert, Nancy Duarte, wrote an insightful article on this topic several years ago and stated: “People will be more willing to forgive your in-progress ideas if they feel like they’re part of the process.”
You can’t make bad news less painful, but you can deliver it in the most respectful way possible.
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