Eight Good Ways to Break Bad News

When a client asked about the best way to share bad news during times of change, the following guidelines came to mind. These were designed from the perspective of a corporate communicator with change management responsibilities, but any leader or manager sharing difficult news with direct reports might also find them useful.

Be Empathetic: Stating the facts simply and directly is always a good place to start: “We recognize that this will be a significant loss…”  and words to that effect, can go a long way in building a bridge with your target audience.

Be Proactive: This is the idea of getting out in front of the message. We want to avoid the element of surprise and provide as much warning as possible, so that folks have a chance to plan for the change. If the announcement involves pay, especially, or the reduction of an incentive, legal may require distribution of the message five months in advance of the actual curtailment, so plan accordingly. Sound the message out with a focus group to anticipate the responses of your wider target audience.

Get to the Point: Avoid deception of any kind and to be as forthright as possible. Avoid spin or beating around the bush. Get to the point quickly and effectively.

Anticipate Reactions to Change: A simple Question and Answer communication can help you get out in front of the message, anticipating the issues and concerns of your target audience. This is the value of capturing feedback from a focus group up front and well in advance of the communication—so you can understand and address issues and concerns before they come up.

Map Bad News to Strategic Corporate Goals: Is there an enterprise-wide effort underway to reduce overhead in order to focus on new product marketing? Are there audits underway to reduce disproportionate spending on low priority program requirements? A meaningful sharing of strategy can help employees focus on the greater good. It will be useful to couch the message in these terms.

Focus on Positives: When giving bad news, it’s always a good idea to try to focus on the positives. Take the time to extract the positives– not in what’s being taken away, but in what remains. Are you taking away an incentive for a program but not the career-pathing opportunity, the opportunity to refine or gain marketable skills? Talk about it. Stay away from spin, but do try to balance the bad news (what’s changing) against the value or benefit of what’s not changing. It usually makes sense to blend what’s being preserved with what’s being lost, in order to soften the blow.

Commit to Listening and Engaging: Employee focus groups serve another useful purpose; namely, they send a clear message that senior management is willing to listen to employee feedback and concerns. It extends a sort of emotional empathy to the bad news process, which is always advisable. Finally, listening and integrating employee feedback into the decision-making process builds toward a consensual decision-making model and leads to an integrated two-way approach to communication.

Stay Along for the Ride: Stay in touch. Corporate culture and openness are big variables here, but using a subscription-based RSS feed with blog updates is certainly a great way for senior leaders to create a direct ongoing connection with employees who wish to be updated as each stage of change unfolds.

These are just some broad principles that may be useful to keep in mind.

What’s your approach to sharing bad news?

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk’s photostream

In Category: Corporate Culture, Crisis Communication, Executive Communication, Human Resources, Public Relations, Social Media, Workforce Engagement

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Dom Crincoli

Show 7 Comments
  • Joyce Swingle April 8, 2010, 10:11 am Link

    Hi Dom:
    I really appreciated these tips and know from experience that they can really help — in a variety of settings — when one has to share bad news with another. Thank you for sharing. Best, Joyce Swingle

  • Dom April 8, 2010, 12:58 pm Link

    Thanks Joyce. Glad you found it helpful. It’s never easy to break bad news but how we approach the task (as communicators, managers or counselors) can make all the difference with our target audience. Thanks for weighing in.

  • Stacy Wilson April 16, 2010, 12:51 am Link

    Good stuff Dom. One thing I would add is that in situations where people are leaving we tend to not take care of survivors well. We focus attention on privacy of the departing, forgetting that our survivors are affecting our corporate productivity. So, I think this type of bad news requires a redoubled communication effort to survivors.

    Stacy Wilson

  • Dom April 16, 2010, 9:05 am Link

    Good point, Stacy. No sense in having a group of employees who are always looking over their shoulder for the next bit of bad news. In terms of making an announcement about bad news, I think it helps to map it to corporate strategic imperatives, as I’ve said; but it’s equally important to map out what’s planned for those who remain, preferably in a separate communication, as you’ve pointed out. Thanks for weighing in.

  • Beth Gleba May 3, 2010, 10:59 pm Link

    Hi Dom,
    This is really terrific advice. Especially “mapping to strategic plans.” Bad news is never easy, but when a move is logical I think it can be easier for people to accept, and move forward.
    Thanks again,
    p.s. Will I see you this week in Philadelphia?

  • Dom May 4, 2010, 7:33 am Link

    Thanks Beth- I won’t be joining CCMers in Philly this week, unfortunately. But hope to catch up with you soon. Cheers, Dom

  • Dom May 20, 2011, 9:30 am Link

    This article was also featured in Ragan.com: http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/42970.aspx