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Giving Bad News? Tips for Tactfully Delivering Difficult Messages

Jennifer Post

At some point, every manager has to have a difficult conversation with employees, whether it's about a layoff, a budget cut or poor performance. The good news is that there are resources to help leaders navigate these situations.

It's always good to have a model as a standard that everyone is aware of and trained on, said Michael "Dr. Woody" Woodward, Ph.D, executive coach and author of "The YOU Plan" (Advantage, 2012). That way, there aren't any surprises.

"The goal should be to create a culture of open dialogue where tough conversations are the norm and not the dreaded exception," Woodward said. "This always starts at the top. If your highest-level leaders don't role model the standard, you can't expect others to follow it either."

Guiding a team through positive times can make anyone feel like a great manager; it's when you're met with challenges, like giving bad news, that you uncover the kind of leader you truly are. Here are some tips on how to deliver difficult news.

Know your strengths

If you don't feel comfortable starting the conversation, and you don't think you can handle it as well as someone else could, don't force yourself to follow through. Admit to your weaknesses so the issue can be sorted out with the care it requires.

Dana Brownlee, corporate trainer and founder of Professionalism Matters, recommends enlisting someone else to deliver the message if you're not suited for it. It's important for a leader to recognize that they can show support in a variety of ways, but they may not be the best spokesperson in every situation.

Consider timing

Don't just blurt out the news as soon as you hear it. Even if it is timely, choose the most opportune moment for the message.

"Making depressing announcements right before the holidays may be perceived as callous," said Brownlee. "Similarly, bright and early Monday morning probably isn't the best time to deliver bad organizational news that may haunt the workplace for the rest of the day [or] week."

She added that promptness is also important – whether it's acknowledging a team's great work or offering consolation, doing so closer to the time of the related activity enhances the feeling of authenticity.

Swap roles

When in doubt, consider what you would want to hear, said Brownlee. Whatever your goals are as the person delivering the message, make sure to treat the receiver with empathy and respect.

Customize when possible

Remember that each person is unique. Tailor your delivery to the particular employee.

Brownlee listed a few questions to ask yourself when trying to customize the delivery of a difficult message.

  • What is the temperament of the individual?
  • How important is the issue?
  • Is this a one-time instance or a pattern?
  • What is the impact of the performance problem or incident?
  • What is my relationship with the individual? How familiar are we? How strong a history/relationship do we have?

Match mode to the situation and audience

How you communicate can matter more than what you communicate, according to Brownlee. If it's complicated, sensitive, or urgent, she suggests avoiding email or text. If you can't do it face to face, apologize for communicating by phone and explain why you couldn't share the news in person.

"One of the greatest challenges all leaders face is having difficult conversations," Woodward said. "They are always awkward, painful and emotional. Difficult conversations can run the gamut from poor performance to inappropriate behavior to concerns about personal well-being."

"Teaching empathy isn't the easiest task, but leaders can certainly improve in this area through training and experience," Brownlee added.

For professionals, delivering difficult messages isn't always fun. But Woodward said there is training for everything.

Woodward noted a few methods out there for teaching leaders how to conduct difficult conversations. The key elements that most cover are:

  • Sticking to objective facts and/or observations
  • Illustrating the impact of the issue or the behavior on the business
  • Listening to their side

"One of the biggest mistakes I see managers make when delivering tough feedback is not laying out a path for improvement," Woodward told Business News Daily. "Remember, it's not just about addressing the issue, it's also about helping the employees solve it. As a leader, your role is to coach your people forward in a positive direction."

Image Credit: KeyStock/Shutterstock
Jennifer Post
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Jennifer Post is a professional writer with published works focusing on small business topics including marketing, financing, and how-to guides. She has also published articles on business formation, business software, public relations and human resources. Her work has also appeared in Fundera and The Motley Fool.