Helping Leaders Hear The Bad News

A few times recently I have had the challenge of summarizing the results of employee surveys that were conveying some tough messages.

Some of the news—not all by any means—was bad news. Some sectors of the organization were experiencing serious problems with collegiality and leadership. When compared to norms for their industry or even to how this organization was performing a few years ago, things looked bad in a few departments.

The challenge for the consultant—that’s me—is to give a factual, accurate account of the survey results in a way that they prompt constructive action.

One pitfall is that people become discouraged. Leaders may conclude that despite their best efforts, the conditions continue to worsen. They may doubt their abilities or conclude that external forces acting on the organization and its employees (funding cuts, diminished public support) make progress impossible.

Another pitfall is defensiveness. Leaders may resent employees’ lack of appreciation of their leaders’ best efforts. They may discount their opinions as reflecting a superficial understanding of leadership challenges in their industry. They may resent those responsible for the survey for having a negative bias built into their survey.

Both pitfalls discourage effective action.

Giving tough but effective feedback to an organization’s leaders requires the same sorts of sensitivity as doing so with an individual whose performance you hope to develop.

  1. Talk to the leadership group. Define problems as shared challenges. Even if some sectors have more negative responses, improving the situation is a shared responsibility of the whole organization.
  2. Don’t single out sectors. Acknowledge that some sectors have problems and that the leaders of each sector is receiving information to know where their sector is performing.
  3. Get to the point. Speak clearly about the problems. Explain the measures that signal problems and reflect on their potential consequences.
  4. Lead a Conversation. This communication is all about the audience. The more they join the conversation, but better hope for future action.
  5. Go to solutions. Provide recommendations for solutions. Recommendations may start with general principles and drill down to concrete action plans for consideration.
  6. Follow up. Once a metric is established, use it to encourage accountability into the future.

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