Delivering bad news with grace and effectiveness

How many times have you swept a problem under the carpet, only to have it become much worse? Maybe you thought the problem would go away, or maybe you were too uncomfortable to confront it head on. Delivering bad news is one of the toughest jobs managers face. So, more often than not, they avoid the issue rather than facing it with a co-worker or subordinate. 
Why are people so afraid of delivering bad news?

  • It can make you look bad. 
  • You don't want to be unpopular or thought of as a dictator. 
  • You think the confrontation will be worse than it really is. 
  • The process itself is frightening. 
  • You don't know how to handle conflict effectively.

The reasons managers avoid negative subjects are varied, but one thing's for sure, it's never pleasant. Most people have worked with the extremes: One type is always negative and is always quick to point out others' mistakes. At the opposite end of the scale is the manager who avoids conflict at all cost.
For both types, the problems don't go away, but how managers handle them can make the situation worse. The goal is to find a happy medium between the extremes. You've faced many of the following scenarios; did you know how to handle them?

  • Don't attack.

When you have to discipline a subordinate, don't attack the person, address the behavior. If you make it a personal issue, you immediately put your co-worker on the defensive and he or she is more likely to fight back. Talk about the behavior that went wrong, but not who caused it. For example, say that incorrect paperwork caused a big customer's delivery to be one week late, not that he personally messed up the job. Then focus on how to do it right the next time. 

  • Don't "garbage bag."

Some managers allow a subordinate to mess up a few times without saying anything, then they explode with a list of offenses a mile long. It's better to address each incident as it happens or let it go. If it's important enough to bring up later, it's important enough to talk about when it happens. If you don't think it's worth mentioning now, you've lost your chance to bring it up later. 

  • Be clear, but not combative.

Don't dance around the problem. When you discipline a subordinate, both of you should walk away with a clear understanding of the issue and an action plan for a solution. Some managers try to discipline but, in the end, gloss over the real problem. Your co-worker goes away not knowing what's wrong, and worse yet, not knowing how to fix it.

  • Support the company line.

Sometimes managers have to bring bad news to their team from the company level -- for example, to say that big budget cuts are in the works that will impact the team's projects. In this case, always give the party line and don't editorialize. State the facts, but don't criticize the decision or the people who made it. You need to show leadership, especially during bad times. And, don't try to cover up the news or paint the situation in a positive light. The rumor mill can go wild, and before you know it, panic will set in.

  • Don't place blame when things are beyond your control.

If your team loses a customer because the client cut a budget, there may have been nothing you could have done to see it coming or to avoid it. You need to deliver the news while making it clear that the team's work had no impact on the decision. And again, don't interject your opinion or second-guess a client's actions -- remember the client may come back one day and you don't want any hard feelings.

  • Maintain dignity.

If you have to deliver the ultimate bad news and terminate an employee, do it in such a way that maintains the dignity of both the employee and the company. In most cases, there was a progression of disciplinary action or one critical event that preceded the termination, so neither of you are caught off guard.

  • Balance emotions when delivering bad news.

You want to show concern and confidence in the employee, but you can't allow your emotions to get the best of you. If you're disciplining an employee but don't have the confidence he can fix the problem, the employee is not right for the job. If the employee gets emotional, allow him to express himself, but don't let the worker's emotions deflect you off course.
- Emory Mulling