Sharing very bad news with employees—e.g., layoffs, department eliminations, benefit cutbacks, etc.—is among the most difficult and stressful communications a leader can make. But that burden comes with the job. Delivering highly consequential news to staff isn’t the role of human resources or internal communications executives; it’s the role of the chief executive.
At the same time, leaders need to know that how they deliver that news—including decisions of tone, context and content—can have an enormous impact on staff perceptions of their reputation and authority.
So how can leaders be both bearers of bad news and retainers of team trust? Here are eleven important dos and don’ts to help leaders fulfill that role in a way that elevates clarity and confidence.
1. Do use simple and natural language—and notes, not a script—to ensure you sound authentic and not like a talking press release. Crises are a critical time to be human.
2. Don’t overpromise. Unfulfilled assurances and possibilities can ultimately injure your credibility if they go unfulfilled
3. Do convey and reinforce that the decision was made in the best interest of the company and workforce. Be explicit about the reasoning and include other executives or specialists you consulted.
4. Don’t be ambiguous, even if you’re inclined to soften the blow of the news. Employees need and deserve facts from their leaders, not speculation. Ambiguity also projects indecision and breeds fear instead of understanding.
5. Do keep messages in an advancing versus suspending perspective, which means “we do” over “we don’t” and “we will” over “we won’t.” This positive approach conveys a commitment to overcoming, not just avoiding, a setback.
6. Don’t try to spin bad news to seem positive or force silver linings. These tactics may ultimately demonstrate that you don’t want to acknowledge your team’s distress. At worst, they may seem like you’re obfuscating the truth.
7. Do show empathy by acknowledging that the news is difficult for your team to hear, but…
8. Don’t dwell on the news being difficult for you to say. Referencing yourself may feel soothing, but it transforms a moment of empathy for the staff into sympathy for the leader. Your job is to support your team, not to have your team support you.
9. Do reinforce your commitment to honest communications and transparency, and remind staff of dialogue avenues available to them. If you can make yourself available for questions or concerns, explain how staff can reach you.
10. Don’t dwell on rejected alternatives and counterarguments to the decision. Focus on the what and the why—not the “why not.”
11. Do be as concise as you can be. Your staff will need crucial time to process, react and possibly grieve, but they can’t do that while you’re talking, and over-explanation can seem defensive and out of touch.
As we know from Marvel comics and movies, with great power comes great responsibility. Bad news is something no employee wants to hear, but every leader needs to be ready to convey. When unwanted but necessary executive decisions are made—for whatever reason or cause—employees not only look for answers; they also look for hope. A smart and prepared leader will provide both.