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How to deliver bad news in connection with change

Delivering bad news is one of the biggest challenges managers face. How can you deliver bad news in a way that minimizes the damage?

Here’s a short plan for announcing any kind of news that causes disappointment, whether it’s not making the numbers, relocating facilities, or eliminating a valued perk.

Don’t wait too long – do it as soon as possible

Bad news travels faster than a space shuttle. Until an official announcement is made, there will be wild speculation by your employees. Head off the rumors quickly. Speaking up asap will let you define exactly what’s happening and accurately describe its implications. At the same time, you’ll earn points by showing that you’re in charge and are being forthright.

Schedule the meeting for early in the day. This will give the employees time to digest it and ask questions. Doing it at closing time will make you look evasive.

Give them the big picture

Begin the presentation by giving context — but do it quickly. Too much background up front can make you look insecure about getting to the bad news itself.

If necessary create a burning platform: What will happen if we don’t react now? You need to be able to tell a compelling change story that motivate employees. But before you can get buy-in, people need to feel the problem. People aren’t going to consider anything until they are convinced there is a problem that truly needs to be addressed.

If you played a part in what went wrong, or took part in a decision that will be painful for the employees to hear, admit it.

Assure the employees that management has a strategy for overcoming hard times, and ask for their support. Without misrepresenting the situation, be optimistic. Emphasize all the organization is doing to combat the problem, and what specific actions management is taking to spare employees pain.

Be ready to tell everyone what their role will be in addressing the problem, and assure them that they’ll have a voice in future planning.

Speak candidly

Tell the employees everything that can be told. If you don’t yet know the full extent of the impending change, say so. If time goes by and there’s nothing new to announce, say there isn’t any new news, so you avoid creating an anxiety-feeding information vacuum.

Managers sometimes appear uncaring when they announce bad news because they worry they might look weak. It’s better to worry about looking uncaring. Be compassionate, but don’t apologize for your bad news or talk at length about how bad you feel.

To come across as credible and sincere, you have to look at the audience in the eye. This is something that can’t be done by reading a speech. Rehearse the presentation so well that you can deliver it unscripted. As you rehearse the words, you should also rehearse the body language you’ll use. What the audience sees will make a stronger impact than what you’re saying.

Plan for questions

An otherwise excellent presentation can be undermined with an awkward handling of the Q&A. Anticipate the questions you’re likely to be asked and be ready for them with concise and credible answers. Adapt them for the particular audience you’re addressing.

If a question is complicated, rephrase it to simplify it without changing the meaning. If it’s angry, recast it in neutral language. Your news may generate a number of angry questions. Be sure you control your own emotions and answer these questions respectfully.

As you answer questions, begin by looking at the questioner, then look at the rest of the audience to signal that the answer is meant for everyone. You can prevent unfriendly questioners from asking repetitive follow-up questions — and give more people a chance to ask their questions — by looking at the opposite part of the room as you finish your answer and recognizing a question coming from there.

Good luck!

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About the author
Torben Rick

Experienced senior executive, both at a strategic and operational level, with strong track record in developing, driving and managing business improvement and development and change management. International experience from management positions in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland

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About the author
Torben Rick

Experienced senior executive, both at a strategic and operational level, with strong track record in developing, driving and managing business improvement and development and change management. International experience from management positions in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland

View full profile

One comment on “How to deliver bad news in connection with change

April 1, 2011 2:18 pm

Andrew Strachan

Thank you for your insightful article.
It is also helpful to keep in mind that you are leading the employees through an emotional upset, more or less dramatic depending on the emotional maturity of the individuals, that follows a fairly straightforward process that can help structure delivery.
The 4 steps are from I know, I understand, I can, I will. Now translating that into emotions you might have: Fear, anxiety, resistance to rationalise, comprehend, calm down to hope, restored confidence to embracing the future.
If the news is particularly dramatic, you may not get to the last part of commitment to the future in one presentation, but it is important to leave enough hope in the third part with concrete planned options that you can, in time, lead people to the future. This part is certainly the ‘telling a compelling story’ part that is critical as well as continuing to tell the story and above all living the story as a leader.
So in structuring the outline for delivery, remembering the emotional path you are leading people through can create an easy to remember 4 chapter story, clear; concise; and emotionally coherent.

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