Jill Geisler: 6 things good leaders don’t do when delivering bad news

September 13, 2023 5:34 pm

Don’t you just love those days when it feels great to be a manager? That’s when business is humming, quality is high, and your team is happy. As a leader, you have the delightful job of sharing success stories with everyone involved. Life is good.

And then there are the far less pleasant days. In those times, you become the bearer of bad news. You must inform your staff about budget cuts, hiring freezes, closings or consolidations, changes in assignments and work schedules, or the cancellation of projects.

It’s in these worst of times that your communication skills must be at their best. Your emotional intelligence needs to be dialed up to its highest levels, even as you’re feeling pretty darn miserable.

What’s the best way to for leaders to share negative information? The answer may sound simple, but it’s essential: When the news is bad, don’t make it worse.

I’ve seen it happen too many times. Even with good intentions, managers fumble when delivering negative information. That’s why I’ve prepared this list of what not to do.

1 Don’t use management speak. People see through puffery and obfuscation. One of my favorite management gurus, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Bob Sutton, compiled a list of cringeworthy euphemisms for layoffs, including smartsizing, special forces philosophy and rebalancing the level of human capital. Not only does the language ring hollow, but it also insults the employees who lose their jobs. And it tells the rest of the workforce how little they matter. When layoffs are inevitable, use straightforward language and show genuine empathy to the people impacted.

2 Don’t keep the process a secret. Research says that even when people are unhappy about a decision, they react better when they believe the process behind it was fair. Who was involved in the decision? Did any rank-and-file employees have input? What data was used? Was it reliable? How did the decisionmakers keep bias out of process? How does the decision square with the organization’s stated values?

When you share as much as you can about how decisions are made, people are less likely to fill in the blanks with their worst fears. You can reduce resistance and retaliation — both of which are real consequences of decisions that are poorly made and poorly rolled out.

3 Don’t shut down conversation. When people get bad news, they need to express their concerns and feelings. Some will want to challenge the wisdom. Some need to vent. Some want very practical answers about next steps, and others want existential conversations about their work and the organization’s future. Good leaders know their people well enough to engage in those conversations and listen carefully. They don’t take part in company bashing, but they understand that people are angry, hurt and disillusioned. They provide all the answers they can, dispel the rumors and myths they know to be harmful and carefully shift conversations to focus on the future.

I once led a workshop for a large management team after a new top leader was installed. Their organization was struggling with a recently purchased and very flawed software program. Their corporation was in litigation with the software vendor and required people to keep using the software as the lawyers sorted things out. The new leader started our session by telling the group that he understood their frustrations. He, too, had many maddening experiences with the software and hated their shared predicament. He promised the group he would relentlessly lobby his bosses for a faster resolution. He then invited his managers to keep coming to him about their challenges and pledged to keep them in the loop.

One of the managers told me later that those words meant the world to the team, not because the new leader had any instant solutions, but because their previous boss had shut down conversations about the software nightmare. It was in corporate’s hands, so why waste everyone’s time rehashing the pain? But the pain was real. The new leader made them feel heard — and valued — even when he didn’t have good news.

4 Don’t avoid contact with the team. When you know your staff is unhappy about a decision, it can be tempting to lay low. But what happens if you stay in your office, buried in paperwork to avoid the sad faces? Who are your team members talking with? Who is answering their questions? Who is empathizing with their concerns?

When I served on the small faculty of a nonprofit training institute, economic downturns led to a series of reductions in our benefits. When the last cut was imposed, the institute’s president didn’t send a memo or call a meeting. She visited each staff and faculty member to deliver the news face-to-face. She laid out the budget realities that drove the decision, answered questions and shared genuine empathy. Later, I heard the buzz from my colleagues: While no one was happy about the cut, they gave her great credit for putting herself out there so intentionally and thoughtfully.

5 Don’t make it about you. You may feel terrible about the bad news you’re delivering. You may have argued with the powers that be, pressed for other alternatives and lost sleep. That means you’re a good leader. But it doesn’t make your feelings a priority. When the news hurts people, the most important feelings are theirs. You can let them know you care and even that you’re hurting, too. But it’s not their job to take care of you. Turn to trusted fellow managers for that.

6 Don’t lie. Managers may be instructed by their superiors to keep things under wraps when a business change is afoot. It might be for legal or competitive reasons. But rumors can circulate, and news leaks happen. Understandably, employees expect their bosses to answer their questions. “We were thinking of buying a house, boss, but people are saying we might get merged into another company. Is that true? What should I do?”

You’re in a tough spot. You’re not supposed to share what you know. If you lie and say you know nothing, not only is it morally wrong, but your employees will also never forget, and probably never forgive. It’s better to say, “You know that I share business information whenever possible. But I’m not able to discuss stuff from that level. I will as soon as I can.”

This is where the credibility you earn every day by being accessible, inclusive and generous with information really pays off. If you’ve always played straight with your staff, they’ll believe you when you tell them you can’t say more.

It’s that credibility — and your good communication — that gets you through the inevitable rough times and back to those infinitely better management days.


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