Seven good ways to deliver bad news

Nearly everyone has to be the bearer of bad tidings from time to time. Maybe it’s a cost increase. Perhaps it’s a layoff. A cutback in business hours. A product upgrade that’s been pushed back six months. Lower-than-expected earnings. Or a security breach.

How you communicate that bad news will have a significant impact on your organization and its reputation. In fact, handling one piece of bad news effectively may be more powerful than sharing ten pieces of good news.

Be candid. Human nature leads people to try to camouflage bad news with all sorts of soft expressions and weasel words. Guess what? People see right through that stuff. They don’t think you’re trying to be gentle; they assume you’re lying through your teeth. Think of how you react when a political figure gets caught doing something he shouldn’t, and then tries to slither his way out of it with doubletalk. Consider your opinion if he were to instead say, “I admit that I made a mistake. What I did was wrong, and I regret it.” Being straightforward builds trust and pays long-term dividends. Besides, it’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said when you’ve told the truth.

“Criticism at that point is perceived as nothing short of mean-spiritedness.”

Candor can also stun and even disarm your critics, especially when you follow it with a statement about what action you’ll take next or what you’ll do differently. Criticism at that point is perceived as nothing short of mean-spiritedness.

Be confident. Confidence inspires more confidence. If your employees or customers see you reacting with poise and self-assurance (no matter how much you’re quivering inside), they’ll worry less. Your language, your voice, your posture – all of those things must convey the impression that you’re in control and that you’re already moving past the bad news.

See it through their eyes. You know the full story behind the bad news and how it will impact the organization. Your external audiences probably don’t care. Focus your messages on what matters to them. Consider how whatever happened may affect their working relationship with you, and start your message there. “While the fire was a setback for our company, we have already leased temporary office space and are working from our backups to ensure that customers won’t see any interruption in the service we provide.”

Don’t exaggerate. It’s very easy to turn that proverbial molehill into a mountain. Odds are good that whatever has happened or is about to happen is not on a par with the Black Plague, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the end of the world, so don’t react as though it is. Your explanation will drive the audience’s reaction. If you present the news as something bigger than it really is, they’ll overreact, too.

Make sure your employees provide measured responses when sharing information about the bad news, too. If they’re delivering intense drama when talking with your clients or prospects, you’ll have a much tougher time turning things around.

Take the hit. It’s easy to shift the blame to someone else or a situation. “Our production staff didn’t live up to management’s expectations.” “The economy caused this layoff.” “Customers didn’t want to buy our product.” People in charge don’t hesitate to take credit for the good things that happen to their organizations. They should also be willing to take the blame for the bad ones – even if they really aren’t at fault! “I didn’t pay close enough attention to our production process, and quality suffered.” “We just didn’t respond quickly enough to the challenges created by the recession.” “We failed to offer products the marketplace wanted.”

Find good news in the bad. Okay, you’ve had to cut a third of your staff because orders are down. You’ve had to become adept at doing more with less. Once things turn around, you’ll be poised to be in even better shape. The economies you were forced to create are likely to spawn efficiencies that will boost profits when things get better.

Remember that bit of Zen wisdom: “Now that my house burned down, I have a better view of the moon.” Positives may not be easy to find, but there are probably some lurking somewhere in that bad news. Put the emphasis there. “Yes, this happened, but it was a good lesson for us.”

Move on. Businesses have a tendency to be so concerned about the bad news that they keep repeating it to customers. Or they leave messages announcing the bad news on signs in their workplaces or in announcements on their websites for weeks. Don’t do that. People have short memories, and if you don’t remind them about your bad news, they’ll shift their focus to other things. After you’ve shared the bad news, go back to delivering the kind of messages everyone enjoys.