Leadership insights: how to deliver bad news the right way

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Most people in leadership positions will tell you that delivering bad news is one of the hardest parts of the job. No one likes being the bearer of bad news, but such situations can never be completely avoided. 

Throughout your career, occasions will arise when it may be necessary to:

  • Fire people
  • Give disciplinary warnings
  • Have difficult conversations about performance
  • Report mistakes and project failures to your superiors

Managing bad news well is the mark of a great leader, so it pays to plan ahead for these events. As tempting as it may be to go home and bury your head in the sand until you can hide from it no longer - this will only make things worse in the long run.

Why delivering bad news the right way matters

Bad news is bad news. It’s highly unlikely anyone will thank you for bringing them information they do not want to hear. However, delivering bad news the right way can prevent situations from getting worse and can increase your standing as a leader in the eyes of employers and team members alike.
We’ve outlined some key considerations to help you mitigate further damage and deliver bad news the right way, whatever the circumstances.

6 strategies to help leaders deliver bad news at work

Here are 6 key strategies that will help you deliver bad news in a way that makes it easier for the recipient to handle, and that does not damage your standing as a leader.

1. Be direct and concise

Don’t beat around the bush, and don’t say something in 10 words that could be communicated in two. Whether you’re talking to a superior or a subordinate, that person will very quickly grasp that bad news is on the way and they will not thank you for drawing the process out or dancing around the point.

For instance, if you’re in a position where you need to fire someone - open with that exact information: “I’m sorry, I’m afraid we’re letting you go.” Otherwise, they will agonise throughout the entire conversation worrying that this will be the outcome, and will be more likely to react with upset when you finally spit it out.

2. Be timely

This also applies to just about every bad news situation. Once you know what needs to be said and done and you have all the necessary information, seize the next appropriate opportunity to rip off the bandaid and get it over with. 

Dropping bad news on upper management or a member of your team at the last moment will only increase their upset and annoyance - no one wants to hear that they’re not getting their bonus 24 hours before it was due to be paid. 

It is important to make sure you choose an appropriate moment to talk with the person or people in question - don’t ruin their lunch break or barge into a meeting to demand an immediate audience with your department head - as this isn’t going to win you any supporters either.

3. Be accurate and objective

Keep personal opinions and feelings out of it, delivering objective truths only. Saying things like: “I think you’re doing great but higher management doesn't agree” will create internal conflicts, damage morale, and backfire massively when you’re forced to go back on what you’ve said. Check out this Harvard Business Review Article for more advice on delivering bad news to employees, subordinates and members of your team.

For this same reason, it pays to be accurate. Don’t glaze over problems, offer unfounded silver linings or misconstrued any information. When the truth comes out (and it will) you will have painted yourself as dishonest and at least a little bit cowardly.

4. Listen 

Listening is one of the most effective upset-mitigation skills. If you’re telling an employee they need to improve their performance or face disciplinary action, you need to give them the chance to express their thoughts on the matter and ask questions. Without this opportunity, they may not be sure how best to improve things.

Listening is also important when delivering bad news to your superiors. They are going to want to give you their opinion on the situation and you must remain open to hearing it.

5. Take responsibility

If the situation you’re delivering bad news about is your fault - partially or otherwise - be clear about the fact that you accept responsibility for your actions and choices. Even if other people are partially responsible, avoid pointing fingers or playing the blame game. This achieves nothing and will make you seem cowardly or dishonourable in the eyes of your superiors and team members alike.

6. Talk about the next steps

Don’t cut and run as soon as you’ve delivered your bad news bombshell. Instead, take the time to clearly and accurately outline what happens next. If you’re telling a team member they’re being given a disciplinary, be sure to explain clearly and concisely what they can expect to happen next, what help is available, and how they might improve the situation for themselves.

If delivering bad news to a superior which relates to a mistake you and your team have made, go into the meeting armed with a breakdown of:

  • How you intend to deal with it
  • What you will do to avoid similar mistakes in future

Make absolutely certain that you do not promise anything you cannot deliver. Overpromising will land you right back in the same situation in the not-too-distant future.