How to Deliver Bad News Without Breaking Up Your Team

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Some conversations you’d give almost anything to avoid. It’s great to celebrate when you meet goals, pass milestones and break records, but some days things go the opposite direction, and you’re the one who has to talk about it with your team. Nothing can completely take away the sting, but if you must be the bearer of bad tidings, careful delivery can minimize the fallout.

Anticipate Questions

Put yourself in your employees’ or teammates’ shoes. When you tell them something went wrong or that things are about to change, their first thought is going to be, “how will this affect me?” Think what questions they might ask and be prepared to answer honestly, tactfully and with respect.

You might have the task of telling employees their raise request was rejected, their evaluation didn’t go well or a project fell through. If you made the decision, be prepared to take responsibility and explain the reasoning behind what you chose. If the bad news comes from someone higher up, try to learn their rationale so you can pass that on.

Talk in Person

If your bad news has an individual impact, talk to each person separately and in private. Don’t communicate electronically through email or text, have a face-to-face meeting if at all possible. When bad news or unwelcome change applies to the whole group, you still might want to have one-on-one conversations if the impact is different on each teammate or a group discussion could lead to conflict.

Be Clear and Direct

This is the hardest part. Don’t ease into the conversation, just deliver the bad news in simple words and plain language. Tell them what’s going on and why. Don’t downplay, sugarcoat or place blame. Don’t try to spin it as a positive, your team needs time to process bad news the way it is.

What happens after you tell them the bad news is as important as your delivery itself. Allow discussion, but don’t get involved in debate. Communicate clear timelines or deadlines for the change. You might have to repeat information as employees or team members mentally break it down. Show them courage and calm, even if that’s not what you’re feeling inside.

Listen

If your employees are going to feel anxiety and stress during the change or because of bad news, acknowledge that. If the bad news means less money or more inconvenience, don’t try to talk people out of being upset.

Realize their negative reaction is normal and give them time to process. You can’t change the news, but you can listen to how they feel about it.

The best leaders show they’re willing to face personal discomfort to do what’s best for their organization. When you deliver bad news with empathy and respect, your team knows they can trust you to be honest even when the truth hurts.

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