10 steps to breaking bad news well

For employers, delivering bad news is a reality of the job, a fact that has come into sharp focus since COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

According to a recent survey by workplace strategy consultancy WkSpace, more than half of the employees surveyed are concerned about job security. These concerns are sadly not unfounded. Unemployment figures are rising and bad news will no doubt keep arriving when the furlough scheme concludes in October.

breaking bad newsBad news doesn’t just relate to recession, redundancies and restructures. Working for a company that is fighting for survival is a different experience to working for a company that was once doing well. Employees are working just as hard, and yet there are fewer celebrations and rewards. This has the potential to fuel resentment and deplete enthusiasm.

Regardless of how your business is faring in these challenging times, at some stage in your career you will have to break bad news. And when it’s your turn to communicate the difficult decisions that are being made to safeguard the future of the business, you will be in the spotlight. If you fail to master the art of delivering bad news respectfully, gracefully and clearly, then the person on the receiving end may suffer more than they have to.

How and what you communicate will ultimately be determined by the scale and complexity of the information you have to relay as well as its potential impact on the receiver. Whatever the news, strong and focused communication is key to ensuring employees have a clear understanding of why change is taking place and how it is likely to affect them, personally.

Here Jo Sutherland, managing director of Magenta Associates gives her top tips for delivering bad news:

  1. Step into their shoes – Put yourself in the other person’s shoes to consider the most appropriate communications channel. In almost every situation, bad news is best delivered in person. At the moment we can’t make the most of the intimacy that face-to-face meetings offer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t deliver the news in a way that is sensitive and considerate.
  2. Deliver the bad news as soon as possible – There is a misguided idea that you shouldn’t give people all the bad news in one go. Bad news is not like wine. It does not get better with age. Don’t massage the situation or deliver the news piecemeal. If you do, people may feel more disillusioned as time goes on, and their confidence may wane.
  3. Come armed with solutions – This is what’s happening, and this is what we’re going to do about it’. Once you get the bad news out of the way, you can start to build positive momentum again.
  4. Explain why – Offer context and a rationale. Leaders must be honest and transparent. When breaking the news, don’t embellish or exaggerate. Keep it simple and truthful. Give detail as to what has happened, how it happened, and then move on.
  5. Present a clear vision of the future – But don’t overlook the seriousness of the ‘now’. This is a fast-moving situation and things will change rapidly. But you must have a plan, and you must believe in that plan.
  6. Map out the milestones – What is going to happen and when? If people are left guessing about what’s happening, they will make their own minds up. That is how rumours start. Make sure everyone knows how, where and when future updates will be provided.
  7. Be clear about the impact – People look to their managers for trusted information and guidance. Answer their main question, ‘what will this mean for me?’
  8. Avoid ambiguity and pre-empt questions – Confused communication is always best avoided, particularly in sensitive situations. You don’t want the person on the receiving end of bad news to have more questions than they started with.
  9. Focus on the positives but don’t sugar-coat it – Try and layer the bad news with the positives. Is it a learning opportunity or a catalyst to do things differently? Try to find the silver lining and express what, if anything, can be learned from the experience.
  10. Give people the chance to have their say – Once you’ve broken the news, sit back and let the person receiving the news take the stage. Let them share their feedback and their feelings. Listen, and be empathetic.

Ultimately, be human. When delivering disappointing news, you need to find empathy and think about what you can offer the receiver to relieve the burden, whether it’s additional support or simply the opportunity to have their say while looking you in the eye. You can read more in Magenta’s guide to breaking bad news here:

By Jo Sutherland, managing director, Magenta Associates