How to deliver bad news: 5 leadership tips

Maybe you have to announce layoffs or an organizational shakeup: Even without a pandemic,  it's difficult to give bad news. Use this advice to have a constructive, empathetic conversation
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Perhaps you need to lay off half of your team, put someone on a performance improvement plan, or announce yet another office shakeup. Or maybe you need to fire an underperforming employee, decide who to promote, or cut benefits to preserve company finances.

These are all examples of challenges you might face at some point in your career. No matter how long you've been a leader, it’s always difficult to have a constructive and empathetic conversation with the people affected. Here are five tips to help people process and accept tough decisions.

1. Start with the facts. Using facts and data to support your decision can make bad news less personal so people are less defensive. Avoid using judgmental and subjective words like “better than,” “right,” and “wrong.” Instead, focus on the independently verifiable facts on which your decision is based.

[ For more advice on crisis leadership, read Emotional intelligence during the pandemic: 5 tips for leaders. ]

2. Share the consequences and tradeoffs. As a leader, you need to be able to evaluate the consequences from every stakeholder’s perspective. If you can help the people affected comprehend the situation from a holistic, long-term perspective, it’s easier to build understanding and acceptance. Tempting as it may be, do not understate the damage.

Clarify what happens next for everyone involved. Using a calm, confident voice, list clear action items for yourself and those affected.

3. Discuss next steps and actionable items. It’s natural for people to experience anxiety and fear after hearing tough news, as it introduces uncertainty. To mitigate this, clarify what happens next for everyone involved. Using a calm, confident voice, list clear action items for yourself and those affected.

4. Show that you care. Make an “I statement” expressing how you feel, using specific emotions such as sad, regretful, embarrassed, worried, etc. Acknowledge that the decision is difficult for the receiver and explain that it is also tough for you. Convey empathy and genuine concern for everyone affected and allow yourself to be vulnerable with your own feelings. Your intention is what matters most, and it will shine through.

5. Give people time to process. Ask if the person needs you to clarify anything but understand that he or she might need time to process what happened. Create a safe space for people to share how they feel, what they think, and just to vent. Whether the person will remain with the company or not, let them know they can always reach out to you.

In trying times like these, communicating tough decisions is even more difficult. Being clear, empathetic, thoughtful, and patient while delivering bad news may help ease the pain.

Thoughts? Reactions? I’d love to hear from you.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Kate Yuan is a startup consultant with a focus on go-to-market strategies and enterprise sales. She has worked with startups in four continents and 30+ countries as an investor, advisor, and operator. Most recently, she was the Operating Partner at Hemi Ventures, an early-stage fund investing in mobility, biotech and enterprise AI sectors.