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6 Things to Ask Yourself Before Delivering Bad News

Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global PartnersPerry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners
Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners

The MPW Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question:What’s the best way to deliver bad news to your team? is by Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.

Giving bad news is one of the toughest things a leader has to do. But given the speed and disruptive nature of change these days, delivering bad news is also inevitable at times. Whether it’s a lay off, a bad review or a budget cut, no good leader likes to deliver bad news but, the best leaders also know that shying away from the issue will only make it worse. So they’ve learned how to deliver bad news in a way that’s straightforward and causes the least amount of disruption to the company and/or the individual/group. Here are six things you should always ask yourself before delivering bad news:

Who is your audience?
Before doing anything, think about the impact(s) the news will have on the person/people you are sharing it with. Does it impact a broad group or just an individual? Is this a complete surprise? Will some take it harder than others? Once you’ve considered the needs of those affected, you’re better situated to deliver the news in the most efficient and effective way.

What type of news is it?
Consider the nature of the news. Is it a decision your staff could have influenced or is it an externally-driven or an organization-wide event beyond their control? Was it your call or did it come from higher up? These things will also matter when thinking about how best to frame the conversation. And when it comes to conversations specifically about poor performance, it’s worth noting that bad news should never be a surprise. Jack Welch, prior chairman of GE, once said that he never had to fire someone who didn’t know it was coming. I agree with this sentiment.

See also: This Is the Worst Way to Deliver Bad News to Employees

Your employees should know where they stand and how they are performing. It’s not about daily “mini-reviews.” It’s about a continuous feedback loop. And, I expect them to do the same for me. What I’ve learned from this is that I’m not always right, but, I am highly coachable and motivated to do better. Regardless of your experience or seniority, you need honest, real time feedback from those who really know you — especially when addressing something a negative.

How will people react?
This is important because being as clear as possible about the desired outcome will help you determine how to present the news. In fact, I often write this part down so I can refer back to it just before I deliver the news.

Why is this happening?
People always want to know ‘why’. It’s human nature. So, practice putting the news in context — an accurate context but also one your specific audience can relate to/understand. When people understand why something is happening it often makes it easier for them to absorb and process the information — and it sometimes lessens the blow if it’s not something they could’ve directly controlled.

How can this be done in the most effective and compassionate way?
While you can’t necessarily always control the news, you can control how you present it and therefore, the emotional impact it has on the person/people. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that how you deliver bad news matters way more than how you deliver good news. A botched delivery of good news is easily overlooked. But when it’s bad news, every syllable, every pause, can count. As for the actual communication method, in person is nearly always best. But in today’s global organizations it’s not always possible. So, “live” but not in person is the next best way to go. And if it’s for a group, try to tell them all at the same time to prevent the spread of rumors or misunderstandings. And, be compassionate but don’t beat around the bush.

What can I say about next steps?
Normally, after bad news is delivered the next thought on everyone’s mind is what will happen next. So when preparing, try to form clear answers to the key questions you expect to hear. It’s rare that you have all the answers, but try to be able to answer at least the most basic questions: timeframe, monetary impact, plans for public communication, etc.