Delivering bad news is tough. It’s even harder when you don’t agree with the message or decision you’re communicating. Maybe you have to tell your star performer that HR turned down her request for a raise or to inform your team that the company doesn’t want them working from home any longer. Should you toe the line and act like you agree with the decision or new policy? Or should you break ranks and explain how upset you are too?
What the Experts Say
“In a managerial role, it’s natural to feel ambivalence” when delivering disappointing news, says Joshua Margolis, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. This is because you always have two different parties’ interests at heart — that of your employees and that of upper management. Talent management expert and humanresources.about.com writer Susan Heathfield agrees: “As a manager, you walk a fine line between being a company advocate and an employee advocate.” Reconciling the two is no easy task and you often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Here’s how to navigate the situation.
Prepare for the conversation
Be sure to have all your ducks in a row before talking with your employees. Specifically, you need to know how the decision was made, who was consulted, what other possibilities were discussed, and the rationale behind the final outcome. “The manager should take as much time as necessary so that she is confident in her own understanding of the answers,” says Heathfield. “And, if you aren’t sure, go back to your boss, HR, or whomever made the decision to ask these questions again.” Margolis agrees: “If you think all concerns weren’t heard, you should seek further explanation and, if warranted, appeal the decision before conveying anything to your team.”
Be direct and avoid mixed messages
One of the biggest factors in whether employees will listen to and accept bad news is how it’s delivered. Watch your body language. “Be sure that your nonverbal cues aren’t telegraphing something different than what you’re saying,” warns Heathfield. Slumping your shoulders, avoiding eye contact, or fidgeting will send the wrong message. Even if this is an obvious setback for everyone, you need to confidently convey the information and leave no room for interpretation. Consider rehearsing what you’re going to say ahead of time. “Go to a buddy — a fellow manager — who can give you feedback on how you’re appearing,” she says.
Be thoughtful and caring but don’t sugar coat the news. That makes it more difficult for people
digest. Instead “laser-focus on the decision and explain why it’s the final call,” says Heathfield. “For example, if you need to explain to your team that the company has banned a particular software they’ve been using, you might say: We’ve made a decision. You may not use this software going forward. Our IT department determined that it’s a threat to our security system.
Explain how the decision was made
Studies show that people are willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the decision-making process was sound. This is often called “procedural fairness.” You might say to your employees, for example: Here’s the process that was followed, the people we spoke with, and where things came out.
Heathfield and Margolis agree that sharing your viewpoint on the decision is not necessary, and can in fact cause harm. “Managers have a great deal of influence on employees. If they give them the ammunition of ‘not even my boss believes this is right’ it can spark a lot of chaos, turmoil, and unhappiness,” says Heathfield. However, Margolis says, if you feel you need to acknowledge your disappointment in order to maintain credibility with the individual or team, you might add something like: It’s not ideally where we wanted it to land but they followed these steps.
If you disagreed with the process, be sure to share your misgivings with the higher-ups, but don’t do it with your people. “You won’t do anyone any favors by telling your team that you think the process was rigged,” Margolis explains. Instead, say: This is how we made the decision this time but we’re going to look into how these decisions are made going forward.
Allow for venting, not debate
Once you’ve delivered the news and explained the decision-making process, ask the individual or group for a reaction. “You have to listen to their concerns,” says Margolis, even if you’re uncomfortable. “It’s part of your role as a manager to absorb some of that emotion, whether it’s anger, surprise, or something else.” Heathfield points out that this is when most managers are quick to align with the team and say, “I think this is a bad decision, too.” But resist that impulse. “The one thing you don’t want to do is get into a debate about the merits of [a] decision” that has already been made, Margolis says. “This is not a time to revisit it,” Heathfield agrees.
Focus on the future
Once you’ve heard them out, take a break — this may be a few minutes or a few days — and let people process the information. Then help the team or individual move forward. Margolis suggests enlisting them in the problem-solving by saying something like: Now how do we make this best work given the concerns you have? Be sure to indicate that you are a partner in doing whatever comes next. If people are disappointed, they’ll need your support.
Putting it all together
To give you a sense of what this all sounds like, consider the following example. If you have to tell a direct report that he didn’t get the promotion he was hoping for you can say something like: We’re unable to give you the promotion (be direct). HR says that in order to be at a director level you need to have responsibility for a larger scope of the business (explain the rationale). It’s not necessarily how I’d approach it, but I understand why as an organization we do it that way (express procedural fairness). What questions do you have for me? How are you feeling? (Allow for venting). Now let’s look at what you can do to get that promotion next year or the following one (focus on the future).
Principles to Remember
- Understand why the decision was made before sharing the news
- Prepare and rehearse what you’re going to say
- Explain the rationale and the process for making the decision
- Sugarcoat the news — be clear and direct
- Let your body language belie your words
- Allow people to debate the merits of the decision — focus on moving forward
Case study #1: Explain the process and stand by the decision
Mark Costa’s (not his real name) team of IT professionals had put a lot of work into researching three software options their company might use to monitor employee’s online activities. They analyzed the costs and benefits for each one and strongly recommended the software that cost the most upfront but would yield the most long-term benefits, expanding easily as the company grew. But when management reviewed the team’s work, they decided to instead go with the cheapest option. Mark didn’t agree but he understood the reasoning: The recommended package was deemed too expensive and investing in it would result in a short-term risk to the cash position. He was therefore “happy to explain the rationale and support the process,” he says.
He walked the group through the logic of the decision and met one-on-one with members who were still unhappy with the decision, always keeping his personal opinion to himself. “I made it clear that there were pros and cons but there was no point in saying anything else as it would have demotivated the team,” he explains. “To be honest, as a manager, I sometimes have to take one for the people above me.” He also didn’t share some of the details he’d been privy to, like the concern about the company’s cash flow. He didn’t want to worry his employees, especially about something they had no control over.
The team took it well. They were disappointed that they had spent so much time coming up with the recommendation, but Mark focused them on their other work. “At the end of the day, there were bigger issues to address,” he says.
Case study #2: Focus on what you can do to help the person
As a regional HR director for a global company, Jihad Gafour, was responsible for onboarding a new project director to the Middle East office. The new hire, Sulayman (not his real name), had been recruited from outside the country and had quit his job to join Jihad’s firm, moving his wife and family with him. But only a few weeks after his start date, upper management began to complain about Sulayman’s performance and to question his trustworthiness.
Soon, the CEO asked Jihad to fire the new hire. Jihad worried that Sulayman was being judged unfairly since he was an outsider challenging the company’s status quo and told the CEO that, in his opinion, this was an unjustified termination. But the CEO would not reverse his decision, so Jihad set about preparing for the conversation with Sulayman. “I gathered a list of recruitment managers and consultants I thought would help him, his wife, and kids,” he says. Then, although almost all of his previous communication with the man had been over the phone, he arranged a face-to-face meeting. He cut right to the chase. He said, “As per the labor law and the contract between you and the company, senior management has decided to terminate the employment contract with immediate effect.”
Despite his repeated attempts to understand the reasons behind the firing, Jihad felt he couldn’t explain the rationale so he told Sulayman that he would be happy to set up a meeting with the CEO. Jihad offered his list of contacts, and closed the conversation by offering his help, saying, “Let me know if you need any other services from HR or from me personally. Here is my number.” Sulayman shed tears during the meeting but came away understanding that the decision was final. He did request the meeting with the CEO and Jihad succeeded in getting the two together, despite some initial resistance from the boss.
Sulayman found another position soon after, and several months later, Jihad also left the company. They’ve both stayed in touch.