Communicating Bad News

In recent days I have heard about a couple of situations where good employees have been turned off from their work because of poor communication of bad news on the part of their superiors. In both cases, it was the way the message was delivered that caused the problem as opposed to the message itself and in both cases the bad feelings were entirely preventable.

The first scenario involved the supervisor of a small and dedicated group of employees. The group was quite close knit and often shared information about their personal lives and socialized outside of work. The supervisor, Margaret, had decided to take a six month leave of absence for personal reasons and was dreading telling her employees.

Margaret decided that because it was such a social group that she could simply tell a couple of people with whom she was close and assume that the word would get around. Depending on the gossip mill however had some serious downsides. Instead of the information trickling down, most of the people she told kept their mouths shut entirely in deference to Margaret’s privacy and the employees who did hear from their peers were offended that Margaret had not told them herself.

In many ways, Margaret underestimated the respect her employees had for her. She is genuinely admired by the people who work for her and they wanted to hear about big changes from her.

The other scenario occurred in a slightly bigger group within a much bigger company. Linda and her colleagues had been working on a large project for close to two years. The company had put millions into the project and over recent weeks the team had been putting in 60+ hours a week trying to meet all the deadlines.

Then, without warning, on Monday morning Linda and her colleagues were told that the company had pulled the plug on the project and they should all stop working immediately. Nobody told them why the project had been killed, what was going to happen with all the work they had done over the past two years, or even what they would be working on next.

While companies make decisions all the time that they do not need to justify to every employee, there should be some recognition of the employees who are invested in certain aspects of the business. Companies need not justify their decisions but in order to maintain an engaged team, managers do need to shed a bit of light on those decisions that directly affect day-to-day operations for those people.

In both scenarios the bad news itself was somewhat unavoidable but it could have been communicated in such a way that employees still felt like they had a stake in the company. A certain amount of information will always need to remain confidential within a small group of higher-ups but, supervisors need to communicate bad news personally and with enough information that the decision does not appear to come entirely out of left field.

What in your experience is the best way to prepare to deliver bad news?

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