3 Tips to Deliver Bad News Like a Leader

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Workplace Issues

Clients often come to me when they have to deliver what they considered “bad news” to an employee. It might be something like:

  • Her job is changing and she doesn’t have a say.
  • He has this behavior or performance issue that is starting to cause a serious problem.
  • You’re giving her a performance rating she’s not expecting.

Or any other number of possibilities… I find my clients’ bottom-line reluctance to deliver the news is that they don’t want to make the person feel bad.  Understandable.

I hear them offer this way and that way they could deliver the message in a way that doesn’t leave the person feeling bad. I’ve done this myself. You end up talking WAY TOO MUCH to prevent the bad feeling, and the person in front of you is just left bereft. You are not helping. The bad news it not getting any better.

Take your leadership skills to the next level.

This is so common among us human beings – we can’t deal with our own discomfort at causing others’ discomfort. At the same time, I think it is one of the biggest mountains to cross to the next level of maturity, at work or anywhere else. What’s it going to take for us to get comfortable with our own discomfort?

Three tips to get you through.

I coach my clients to do three things with their employee:

1. Keep your introduction to the conversation to 2 sentences and a question.

Don’t deliver a prolonged introduction. A simple example:

  • George, we’ve talked a few times about speaking over others at meetings and the impact it has on them. Where do you think you are with that? [Stop talking.]

Always end with a question. Asking a question helps focus them.

2.  Hold them accountable and demonstrate you are on their side at the same time.

Your entire conversation should be about a 50/50 mix of this. A sample paragraph may sound like this:

  • I know we’ve talked about this before. I’m willing to continue to work with you to improve. What ideas do you have to adjust this?

3.  Leave them with hope and action.

As you wrap up the discussion, summarize using hope and action. You want to have the person leaving the room feeling encouraged and supported and with something tangible they can do within the next 24 hours. Your summary could sound something like this (notice: 2 sentences and a question):

  • George, we talked about different options you could use to adjust this behavior. I’m committed to your success and I’m going to check in with you tomorrow before the end of the day. What do you understand you’ll do before then, based on what we talked about today?”

Presumably you two are planning to talk about the first thing he is going to do to improve the behavior, but you want him to say this. If he doesn’t then you know more support is needed. Tell him you’ll check in then to nail down what option he wants to choose.

Get comfortable with their discomfort.

There is no way around it. You have to strategize to make the best of the situation. I am not suggesting spin. I am suggesting a framework to make the best of being on their side and holding them accountable at the same time.  The more calm and confident you are, the more your employee will respond in kind.

How do YOU handle delivering difficult messages like a leader?

Image: BigStockPhoto contributor, PixelsAway.


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About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers:  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Paul LaRue  |  22 May 2014  |  Reply

Absolutely a great post, Mary! So many times we dilute our effectiveness in these situations – then no one comes out for the better. You’ve given not only solid reasons but great ways to apply this into our leadership repertoire. Thank you for helping us approach these situations with character and compassion!

Mary C Schaefer  |  22 May 2014  |  Reply

Paul, thank you for your thoughtful comments! I have to tell my manager clients that you are not being “nice” or “kind” by not telling them what they need to know either. It’s all in how you do it.

Jane Perdue  |  23 May 2014  |  Reply

Mary, delivering bad news is never easy–your succinct advice will help many leaders handle it gracefully and well!

Mary C Schaefer  |  24 May 2014  |  Reply

Thanks for the comments, Jane! Always appreciated.

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