Everyone knows delivering difficult news can be heart-wrenchingly challenging. For those in formal leadership roles, particularly in times of economic strife and tremendous employee uncertainty, the challenge of knowing the right words with which to break bad news cannot be understated. So what coaching can we provide to leaders faced with such unenviable responsibility, whether it involves layoffs, restructuring or shifts in organizational priorities and direction?
Nothing sinks good leadership intentions quicker than trying to dodge around tough issues or sugar-coating announcements. Paul Venables, Founder and Creative Director at Venables Bell & Partners, believes integrity provides organizations with competitive advantage, which inherently implies an absence of honest leadership within business communities. The proliferation of corporate scandals in the past decade, combined with dipping engagement levels in most industries support Paul’s position. Indeed, the demonstration of honesty and integrity is critical to successfully delivering bad news. Don’t be vague. Don’t lie. Do be blunt. Do be direct.
Many leaders mistake honesty for brutality. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is absolutely possible to be both blunt and sensitive. The two are not mutually exclusive concepts or practices. In fact, without leveraging both ideas, leaders will be tap-dancing through an employee minefield and each step risks deadly explosion of emotions from the affected employees – Boom! Show employees that you understand how difficult this is, not for you, but for them. Don’t just show it, though. You must be genuine in displaying empathy. If not….BOOM!
Although transparency and honesty can be two sides of the same coin, they are so critical in delivering bad news that they deserve double-mention. Avoid spinning messages. Employees (despite what some might believe) are intelligent human beings, much more so than some leaders believe or are willing to admit. Don’t insult them with shielded messages. Don’t assume their irrationality, or you will certainly draw it out by talking down to them or around issues. Avoid “corporate speak.” Don’t tell someone that “strategic alignment and return on investment demonstrate the inefficiencies of operations, requiring right-sizing of workforce resources in order to maintain our competitive advantage.” Translation in the emotional world of displaced or restructured employees? “You’re no longer important and I’m too scared or disrespectful of you as a human being to simply tell you.”
Now, we all know that’s not the message the leader intends to send (one would hope, at least!). But that’s what the employee takes away from the conversation, creating an emotional void quickly backfilled with anger, resentment and sometimes vengeance. Employees are adults. They are rational. They are respectful. But only IF they are treated like rational and respected adults. Strong leaders understand that, and while bad news is never easy to deliver, the experience should be one both manageable and that builds a foundation for moving the employee, the leader and the organization forward.