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How good leaders deliver bad news

Communicating to a group of people

There will be moments in your career when colorfully unloading about what’s going wrong is both therapeutic and obligatory. In other words, sometimes you just have to yell, WTH!

Few things are likely to trigger this need more than delivering bad news to good people. It can feel like the scene from 300 where the Persian messenger finds himself hurtling down a bottomless pit courtesy of King Leonidas’s size 13 boot. These days, we are more civilized, but the feeling is awfully similar.

As leaders, we must sometimes deliver bad news. And we occasionally fail the communications test even with the best of intentions.

Mastering how to communicate bad news — as an organization and as an individual leader — affects the enterprise in significant ways.

Delivering bad news badly can lower retention, morale and productivity. Cheryl Conner, a business contributor for Forbes magazine, writes of poor organizational communication, “Avoiding preventable turnover may be one of the biggest incentives of all to focus strong communication inside of your business.”

Disconnect between expectations and performance is often the root cause of bad news. In short, someone or something failed.

Everyone misses the mark occasionally, that’s life. No company or leader avoids an unintended stumble.  But how we respond to failure can be the difference between a mass exodus or roaring comeback.

Here are five steps to deliver bad news with empathy and in the most effective manner:

1. Acknowledge bad news as failure.

The first step in communicating bad news is acknowledging there is, in fact, a failure. This requires the ability to be constructively self-critical.

Doug Yakola, a McKinsey crisis expert, writes, “The first step is to acknowledge there’s a problem.”

There is a subtle and profound nuance in Yakola’s point. The point is not that leaders should merely acknowledge news is bad. They should also acknowledge there is a problem.

Organizations often dispatch managers with talking points merely acknowledging news is bad. Obvious statements like we understand this is not what you want to hear or this is disappointing to all of us show empathy, but they don’t go far enough. As Yakola points out, we must address the unwelcomed situation and the need to overcome it.

Leaders need clear and self-critical statements that explain the reasons for the problem. For example, it is better to say: “We acknowledge that installing one bathroom in a building of 500 employees was a misjudgment. Our internal targets and projections were wrong.”

Don’t merely say: “We understand that long lines outside of the only bathroom are an inconvenience. We know this is not what you expected when moving into the new office space.”

The former statement acknowledges a problem while the latter merely acknowledges bad news exists.

2. Be honest about the cause of bad news and its impact on real people.

Understanding the root cause of bad news — and speaking honestly about it — is a critical step in securing leadership credibility. Michael Beer, a Harvard Business School professor, examined the topic of radical honesty in a recent piece.

In the article, Professor Beer explains, “The common root cause of organizational ineffectiveness [is] a flawed strategy or failure to align the organization … misalignment tends to produce the very symptoms we see … these common manifestations of misalignment can be traced back to the failure of leaders to have an honest and productive organization-wide conversation.”

Honest communication about the cause of bad news does not undermine employee faith in leadership, mainly because such an assessment is constructive and self-critical. Effective leaders will communicate bad news with a sense of responsibility, focusing within on decisions and strategies rather than external explanations such as market forces.

Honest, root-cause assessments of bad news provoke questions like: What did we miss? Were our assumptions correct? Are we being realistic?

Employees form reasonable expectations as a result of an organization’s past performance. Leaders should not dismiss the reasonable expectations of employees — most are rational actors using the most conservative estimates when planning their lives (often because of past disappointments).

When there’s bad news afoot, that news may exceed even the most conservative scenarios. And the recipients of the news will suffer real-world consequences.

For example, anxiety (or even panic) may ensue about the health of the enterprise. This panic can seep into performance, investment decisions, philanthropic initiatives, political activities and even long-term commitments to the organization’s mission.

A siege mentality could take hold, which is frequently incompatible with the growth mindset leaders seek to cultivate. Employees may also become preoccupied with realigning their lives to account for new realities created by the bad news.

Think postponing a surgery, putting off a tuition bill, delaying a car repair or nixing a much-anticipated vacation, decisions not soon forgotten.

3. Apologize for failure.

We often underestimate the impact of one simple word: sorry.

Prevailing wisdom once held that a leader must project infallibility and omniscience. However, research debunks that point of view.

In a paper published in Psychology Today, noted author and therapist Beverly Engel discusses the benefits of an apology. Beverly makes a compelling correlation between leadership credibility and empathy — and between empathy and the willingness to apologize.

Engel says an apology “has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings. While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.”

Acknowledgement of the problem is not enough by itself. Effective leaders include a sincere apology for the conditions or decisions that created the issue.

Leaders should say: “We acknowledge we did not plan well when we installed one bathroom in this office of 500 people. Our targets grossly underestimated the number of people that would need to use the bathroom at the same time. We sincerely apologize for the impact of poor planning on our people.”

But, all too often, the message is simply: “It is an unfortunate situation, but what is done is done. Let’s move on and do a better job planning around bathroom traffic jams.”

4. Commit to fix the problem.

Committing to fix the root cause of a problem is the most critical step in effectively delivering bad news. The commitment to address the underlying problem is essential not merely because it resolves the issue but because it restores lost trust.

A recent management survey found that 45 percent of employees in corporate organizations reported lack of trust in leadership as the issue most affecting their work performance.

Aggressively responding to the root cause of a problem, in a transparent way, restores trust in leadership and boosts productivity, as well as morale.

5. Detail a plan to avoid future failure — and invite employees to refine it.

Opportunity presents itself in the shadow of adversity.  When leaders must deliver bad news, there is also an opportunity to dig deep and rally your team.

Leaders should present the opportunity as a challenge and leverage the underlying failure as a means for inspiring (and incentivizing) collective action.

Problems beg for problem solvers, and bad news can rally employees together for better results. Leaders should extend this offer and give serious consideration to the solutions put forward.

Often, the greatest teams fail together before they win together. Take the improbable turnaround of the Minnesota Twins in the 90s.

In 1990, the Minnesota Twins were the worst team in the American League. In 1991, they won 95 games and a World Series title (sorry, Atlanta Braves fans).

Similarly, in 1921, Walt Disney formed Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City, Missouri. It went bankrupt in two years.

After learning from his failures and relocating to Hollywood to incorporate Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923, Walt famously observed, “All of the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me … you may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”

A century later, my daughter can’t live without Disney Plus.

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but when done right, leaders can help lessen the blow and fortify the morale and productivity of their teams.

Remember these lessons the next time you feel the urge to say: Don’t shoot the messenger!

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