How to deliver bad news

Communication experts reveal the do's and don'ts of awkward conversations

How to deliver bad news

After a spirit-crushing year filled with a pandemic, massive layoffs, financial mayhem, and plenty of triggering events, are leaders now experts at delivering bad news? If your answer is 'no', you can always apply the lessons learnt from the past year or so.

Like one chief people officer remarked, the pandemic has offered leaders one of the best development programs ever.

Leaders were thrown into a practical lesson on how to take charge, be accountable, and steer an organisation out of a crisis – schooling them in critical decision-making and problem-solving skills. And instead of dealing with hypothetical scenarios, they could assess the impact of their actions in real time.

Besides a crash course on being decisive leaders, the crisis assessed two crucial capabilities: communication and emotional intelligence (EQ), including the ability to empathise. These skills were found to be the most crucial in supporting employees through the disaster that was 2020.

Read more: Remote work: How can leaders improve their communication?

Did leaders pass the test?
Unfortunately, some leaders weren’t that great at showcasing their empathy. Over three in five employees said they didn’t experience compassion from their leaders.

Additionally, almost three-quarters of employees didn’t see any vulnerability from their bosses, which could have impacted the way they connected to each other, thereby affecting the delivery of any rallying calls or important messages during the crisis.

Oddly, the same study by Center for Compassionate Leadership, a non-profit firm, found that leaders believed they did a pretty good job at ‘being human’.

Nearly seven in 10 leaders thought they managed the crisis in a compassionate manner, with half (54%) of them positive that they showed genuine vulnerability when they spoke with staffers.

Despite the clear ‘compassion gap’, the study found that employees rated their leaders highly on communication skills such as information sharing, encouraging a sense of optimism, as well as open and frequent communication.

Read more: CEOs don’t feel responsible for employee performance

An imperfect communications strategy
However, another study by Globalization Partners Inc. did find missteps in leaders’ communication strategies – especially if they were managing a global organisation.

They found that global teams struggled to make communications work for them with nearly half (46%) of employees still relying most frequently on email, even though only a third of team members found the method effective.

Two in three global companies thus found it challenging to align with local cultures and communication styles during the crisis.

This is concerning as many organisations continue to work remotely and business travel remains out of the question, cancelling out the possibility of connecting with teams face-to-face and adjusting communications tactics on the fly.

Read more: Your employees are craving a transparent culture

Do: Keep it transparent
As the global pandemic and a recession wears on, HRD spoke with two leaders to find out how to be better communicators.

For a start, Jasmine Bahen, chief talent officer at Edelman APAC, a global communications firm, said leaders need to shake off the mindset that “you must project a certain image”.

“Be authentic. Be transparent. Be frequent in the communications,” Bahen told HRD. “People want to hear from the leaders that, ‘this is the state of life’. And even if we don’t have the answers, share that we don’t have the answers.”

During the chat, her colleague, Adrian Warr, CEO of Edelman Hong Kong and Taiwan, Market Growth Thailand, piped in that being brutally honest about a situation may seem like a crazy tactic, but it’s what everyone will benefit from most.

Transparency is especially important as we go into 2021, which feels like “it’s going to be kind of horrible in many ways” – except leaders have more direction following last year’s trial run.

“We’re in this odd phase where it’s strange to say but [the crisis] has lost its novelty factor,” Warr said. “And people have lost some of the patience and tolerance that they would have had before.”

As circumstances may feel unchanged, he warned that many employees will simply feel fed up with everything, so businesses need to be prepared for that.

“What you did last year may have worked but if you think you can just sort of carry on with that, you’re probably mistaken because the context has changed,” he said.

So, you need to use a different approach when delivering difficult news like workforce reductions or restructurings. Instead of using a ‘crisis approach’, he suggested that leaders treated them like persistent ‘issues’ and handled them accordingly.

“Leaders need to manage expectations a lot,” he said. “Still I think a lot of employers out there who think, ‘right it’s 2021 – things are going to get a bit better now’. But I think leaders have a responsibility to manage any expectations out there.”

Read more: Why CEO transparency isn’t a one-way street

Don't: Forget to follow up
Besides being authentic and transparent when delivering bad news, they reminded that communication isn’t just about presenting facts and information – it has to be relevant to the audience and a “two-way conversation”.

What they meant was that while leaders put in loads of effort into preparing for that initial delivery, they forget to follow up and manage employees’ reactions and how they process the news after.

It’s thus important to phrase the message in a way that’s easy to understand and ensure the content is relevant to the employees’ roles or work, while also allowing questions in return.

“What a lot of employers are still doing is they really worry about getting a perfect message from the top down – craft something that’s really nice,” Warr said. “Then you don’t think about the next two or three weeks of conversation that it’s going to create and how to engage in that.

“I think leaders often have an obsession with trying to be perfect: you have to minimise all risks [and] have to look like you’re in control of everything. I don’t think people expect that. It might be better to just have a conversation if you don’t have the answers.

“[Also] if you start a conversation, you can’t just go quiet. You need to be able to carry on the conversation and keep it going.”

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