Real Leaders

3 Ways to Deliver Bad News as a Leader

It’s a story you don’t want to tell, a message you don’t want to deliver. Maybe you’re letting someone go, interacting with a disgruntled customer, or facing a board member who doesn’t agree with your strategy.

One of my clients, Eric, had to sever his relationship with his business partner. Luckily, they had set up the corporation with clear-cut options for buying one another out. But activating those clauses – and informing the partner of his intentions – gave Eric pause.

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When you’re delivering bad news, like Eric, keep these three things in mind:

1. Privacy Prevails.

If the conversation you need to have is a difficult one, or the stakes are high, the setup matters more than the pitch. Telling your story with your thumbs, or a keyboard, won’t cut it for this dialogue. For that face-to-face that feels like a face-off, consider your surroundings before you speak. Sometimes privacy is exactly what you need. And sometimes, having a difficult conversation in a public place can provide an element of safety, calm, and decorum. Consider your context carefully. If you’re in an office, shut the door – and make sure your conversation is private. If you’re in a public place, consider how your listener might take the news. Are you in the right environment for every reaction? That public place might help keep things from boiling over, or you may end up causing a scene at Starbucks. Consider the how – and the where – of what you have to say.  

2. Prepare for the Worst, But Don’t Expect It.

Do you always try to play out both sides of a conversation in your head, before it happens? Me too. In an attempt to control the unknown, we try to plan out all possible actions and reactions. While it can be useful to consider possible outcomes, being attached to those outcomes is a great way to drive yourself crazy. Consider the if/then scenarios, then ask yourself: “Would it be OK if he or she does… that? That one thing? That one thing that you think is going to be unacceptable?”

When you get OK with possible outcomes, you’re ready to explore the possibilities. Ultimately, no one can control the thoughts or actions of another person –especially if that person is an adult – yet we often try. Bruce Lee once said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim at.” Aim in the direction of that positive outcome. Shoot for the best. Keep in mind that the “movie in your mind” is usually much more dramatic than the action sequence that plays out in real life. Every movie has an audience – are you going to listen to their feedback? What kind of feedback are you hoping to receive? If you aren’t, or if you’ve already made your decision, saying things like “I’m sorry” or “I wish it didn’t have to be this way” is an invitation to an argument, a request for a reversal, or, at best, an unwelcome prompt for unwanted ongoing discussion.

3. Brace Yourself for Fallout.

When news is shared, especially if it’s bad news, people will react. If you cut off that reaction, or ignore it, it’s still there. Emotions will come into the conversation, which is why you wanted to do it over text in the first place. But those feelings of anger, betrayal, jealousy, disappointment, or disillusionment – they’re part of the journey. Knowing you can cope with whatever comes back at you is the key. Remember, you can’t fix feelings; don’t fall into the trap of trying to, especially at a tipping point like this. Once the bad news has been delivered, there’s an opportunity for clear action. Focus on discussing the desired next steps, whether that’s asking an employee to clear out his or her desk or sending documents to the lawyers. Take your time, give your listener time to process what’s happening, and remember the mantra: “If he or she does ________, I can handle it.”

When you’re prepared with an understanding of what might occur, and you detach from the need to fix feelings, you aren’t being insensitive – you’re being informed. And this insight can help you to take the first step toward that difficult conversation, and the outcomes that are on the other side.

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