The right way to be the bearer of bad news

Woman and man discussing business newsFrom the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger,” you can gather that people aren’t a fan of bad news, whether the informer is to blame or not.

Despite this, as the leader of your landscaping company, you will have the unpleasant task of sometimes having to share less than stellar news with your employees.

This could be anything including the closing of a branch or service, the death of an employee or news that company is struggling due to an economic downturn. Whatever the bad news is, there is definitely a right and wrong way to go about sharing it. Below are some of the best practices when communicating negative information, as well as things you should avoid.

Be prepared

You may be dreading having to share your bad news, but this doesn’t mean you should blurt it out just to get it over with. Go over what you plan to say and how you plan to say it. Strive to anticipate reactions among employees. If you’re downsizing your landscape design department, you can expect your designers are going to be confused, concerned and maybe even angry. By expecting every possible outcome, you can also plan out professional responses. 

Be honest and straightforward

Being direct while delivering the news can help ensure that your message is understood and accepted.

“Be sure that your nonverbal cues aren’t telegraphing something different than what you’re saying,” Susan Heathfield, a talent management expert, tells the Harvard Business Review.

Avoiding eye contact and fidgeting are nonverbal cues that send mixed messages and undermine your confidence in what you are saying. While you may not want to hurt an employee’s feelings if you’re having to let him/her go, explaining it in a short and simple manner will help make it clear what’s going on.

In the movie Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane asks, “Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” to illustrate his point that it’s better to be straightforward when cutting a player from the team.

This can be true in any business setting. If you spend your time by being direct and explaining the rationale behind the decision instead of trying to sugar coat a situation, it will be easier for employees to come to terms with the issue.

Provide an opportunity to listen

After breaking the bad news, whatever it might be, provide your employees a chance to process what has been said and to respond.

“The person delivering the bad news may best help the recipient by asking him or her to first share their understanding of the situation,” Stephanie Felgoise, professor and vice-chair of psychology, at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine tells Fast Company. “This allows a shift in thinking by the recipient. The deliverer may then ask what immediate questions or concerns the recipient has.”

While in some situations what your employees have to say may not change what’s going on, they will still feel validated to know you heard them out. One thing you do want to make clear in these cases is that while they are welcome to vent, the decision is not up for debate.

Not allowing employees to be upset or ask questions can come across as cold and indifferent.

Offer a plan

While bad news can be disappointing or worrisome, taking time to pivot and focus on the future will end with concentrating on the actionable, positive things you can do.

If you’re having to tell someone they’re not going to be promoted to that manager position like they hoped because they lack the necessary experience, outline how you can go about providing that experience, so they won’t miss out on the next job opportunity.

By having solutions all ready to go, you and your company can start working toward overcoming whatever setback that bad news caused.

How you shouldn’t deliver bad news

When it comes to what not to do when sharing bad news, a good rule of thumb is, if it sounds like something Michael Scott from The Office would do it, then don’t.

Some of these include ignoring the problem altogether. If you don’t know if your landscaping company is going to make it for another six months, you have an obligation to let your employees know. Informing them could encourage brainstorming to explore different options you hadn’t considered before, and at the very least it allows them to look for other jobs if you truly think you’re about to have to close the doors on your business.

Another thing you shouldn’t do is joke as you share the bad news, as it can come across as disrespectful and insensitive. It may be your first instinct in an attempt to lighten the mood but resist the urge.

The same can be said for attempting to downplay the seriousness of the situation. If you try to spin it so things don’t seem so bad and it ends up becoming worse, your employees could feel like you lied to them.

Lastly, don’t blame others when trying to communicate bad news. Take responsibility when you know you are at fault.

“Leaders who deny all responsibility for bad times, who usually present bad news as a surprise or who have non-credible surrogates deliver the bad news are likely to foster a cynical climate,” Stuart Sidle, a professor of organizational psychology and associate provost for strategic initiative at the University of New Haven, tells Fast Company. “Once cynicism infects the work environment, employees are much less likely to be understanding or cooperative in the face of bad news.”

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