Don't Shoot the Messenger:
How Leaders Can Deliver Bad News
By Chris Witt
In olden days messengers who brought bad tidings risked being
killed for heir efforts. Times and customs have changed, but this
much remains the same: no one likes being the bearer of bad news.
Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more necessary these days.
Profits are falling, salaries and benefits are being cut,
projects are being cancelled, people are being laid off, plants are
being shut down, and businesses are going under. When you’re a
leader, whether or not you have the title, what can you say? What
should you say?
This much is clear: you cannot not communicate.
Refusing to talk about problems won’t make them go away. It won’t
win you people’s trust and respect. And it won’t reassure them or
gain their willingness to take the actions and make the changes that
One way or another the bad news will get out. The question is
not whether but how to communicate it. Follow these guidelines to
make a potentially painful experience more positive, both for you
and for the people you’re addressing.
Your words and
sentiments are only as believable as you are. Make sure your message
is in consistent with what your audience already knows about your
values, actions, and commitments.
Choose the right
time and place:
As a general
rule—there are exceptions, of course—you’ll want to communicate the
bad news as soon as possible. People will feel betrayed if they
think you have unnecessarily kept them in the dark. But as the book
of Ecclesiastes says there’s a time and a place for everything. And
the time and the place for breaking bad news to people is where and
when they feel safest.
Tailor your message
to the audience:
In some situations
you’ll only have to address one audience—your employees, your
department, your team, your clients. But in larger organizations you
may be faced with several audiences—the board of directors, your
executive team, stockholders, department heads and managers, the
rank and file, the public, the media—and you’ll have to create a
message that is suited to each audience’s particular concerns,
roles, and responsibilities.
Give people an
Letting people know
the general purpose of the meeting will give them a heads up and
brace them for bad news. In person or by email simply let people
know when and where the meeting is being held and tell them you’ll
be discussing “recent developments” or “news from the main office.”
Don’t go into details at that time, and don’t provide false
reassurances. It’s okay to let people start worrying, as long as you
don’t keep them on the hook for long.
news is bad, the stakes are high. And you wouldn’t approach any
other high-stakes presentation without knowing what you’re going to
say and how you’re going to say it, would you? This is not the time
for ad-lib remarks or for shooting from the hip. This is the time
for carefully chosen words and a confident delivery.
Start with the
Be truthful and never say anything that you can’t substantiate. For
all too obvious reasons, people today have grown distrustful of
leaders in both politics and business. So it’s even more imperative
for you to lead with integrity. Tell people what they need to know
as objectively, fairly, and completely as possible. Do not
sugar-coat or downplay the bad news. Pattern yourself after Sergeant
Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Then tell people what those
Acknowledge people’s feelings in a compassionate way without turning
the event into a therapy session or a sob fest. Avoid telling people
you know exactly how they feel, or going into too much detail. You
might want to say something like, “I know how difficult and painful
these changes will be.” If appropriate, share your own feelings.
Whatever you say, your underlying message needs to be both credible
and caring. And then put your organization’s actions behind it.
make promises that you may not be able to keep or give assurances
about the future that may not hold true. But give people reason to
believe that their work has meaning, their contributions have value,
and their prospects have potential. Leaders see possibilities when
others see only failure, and people need hope now more than ever.
people’s attention. (Bad news has a way of making people sit up and
take notice.) You’ve told them what is happening and explained why.
You’ve given them hope. Now set them to work. Tell people exactly
what you want them to do, and show them how they will benefit from
people how everything your organization is doing to address the
situation or to respond to the crisis is in alignment with its
values. How your organization acts and how you personally act under
pressure tells people more about what you really value than anything
else you say. Use this time as a teaching moment.
Don’t be like the proverbial husband who told his wife that he loved
her on the day they got married and hasn’t told her again because he
said it once and, darn it, she should know. At best, people only
hear part of any speech, rarely the whole of it. This is especially
true when they are steeling themselves for what they fear is
coming. So you have to say it again and again and again. Once
you’ve spoken face to face to everyone involved, schedule follow-up
meetings. Make yourself available to talk in a variety of settings.
No one wants to
be the bearer of bad news, but leaders do it without flinching
because they know it needs to be done. They know it is in the best
interests of the people they serve. And that’s the hallmark of a
real leader, isn’t it?
Read other articles and learn more about
[This article is available at no-cost, on a non-exclusive basis.
Contact PR/PR at 407-299-6128 for details and