One of the greatest challenges as a manager is delivering bad news. For many managers—especially first time, or novice managers—the experience of delivering bad news, during a layoff conversation or even a negative performance review—can be surprisingly emotional. I have studied the challenges that managers face when delivering bad news and here are some of the key insights and best practices from this research.
1. Don't go in unprepared.
It might seem obvious, but this is one of the biggest mistakes people make when delivering bad news. As seasoned as you may be—and as busy as you may be—don't believe you can just walk in, improvise, and deliver negative news on the fly. Because most likely you can't—or can't in a way that enables you to be your best self. Of course, in the end you will have to improvise anyway, since no conversation goes exactly as planned. But if you've prepared ahead of time—especially for potential contingencies you might experience in the moment, you'll be much more capable of actually doing the improvisation you need.
2. Find your way of balancing compassion and directness.
You don't want to be a compassion-less robot delivering the message. But you also don't want to be a puddle of emotion either. You need to find some way to hit the mark in between these two extremes—delivering the message but in a way that shows you truly care. In our work, we saw managers becoming overwhelmed by emotion and erupting in anger when challenged in the meeting, or even breaking down in tears. We also found people falling off the other side of the emotional balance beam as well, becoming overly rigid, scripted and automated in their conduct—and, as a result, failing to deliver the message with compassion. It is not easy to strike that "middle range" chord, but it's something essential to work on as you develop and hone your interpersonal style.
3. Don't neglect your own well-being.
It's not easy to deliver bad news. People delivering bad news can feel sympathy for the victim; they can feel confused or frustrated about the fact that they have to deliver the news in the first place—like in a layoff situation—when perhaps they don't really even believe in it themselves. And in any case of negative news—major or minor—people can feel quite anxious about how the other person will react—and then how they themselves will respond in turn.
As challenging as these situations are for the recipients, they are similarly psychologically depleting for the performers. And to think that you're just going to "suck it up" and set your own emotions aside is both unrealistic and unwise. Instead, find a way to process your emotion ahead of time, so that you come to grips with the legitimacy of the message you're delivering—that it's fair, legitimate, and justified. Also find a way of restoring yourself after the fact so the emotions you just experienced don't "leak" into your subsequent activities. The key is to make sure to take care of yourself even as you are taking care of the other person. The two are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, quite the opposite: inextricably linked.
We all want to deliver bad news with dignity, respect, and efficiency. And if you follow these tips, you'll have a good chance of hitting the mark.
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Andy Molinsky is the author of Reach and Global Dexterity.