How The Best Leaders Deliver Bad News

Senior management has plenty of perks – networking opportunities, higher salary, more recognition and prestige. But these are also incentives that aim to motivate and satisfy people with very difficult positions. A career that leads to the C-suite can also be more demanding – these roles usually mean working longer hours, lots of traveling, and perhaps the toughest task of all, acting as the disciplinarian/decision-maker.

How The Best Leaders Deliver Bad News

So how can senior professionals balance professionalism with prudence when making tough decisions? Next time you’re confronted with the following scenarios, relax and remain calm. It’s not an easy job, but someone’s got to do it – here’s how the best leaders deliver bad news.

Scenario 1: Poor Performance

The Approach: “Let’s Work Together”

An employee within your organization has been under-performing – and noticeably so. Many factors come into play when approaching this situation. How long has this employee been with your company? Have there been any recent restructuring measures?

Have you noticed any personal issues in their life? Before you initiate any sort of discussion, it’s a good idea to know what you’re dealing with.

A manager should be flexible, understanding, and work to support their team members. But no matter the circumstances, if you have an employee on your team who’s not pulling their weight, this issue must be addressed and handled appropriately.

Once you’re up to speed on the specifics, schedule a meeting with your team member. Address the specific issues that concern you – inattention to detail, neglecting deadlines, poor attitude. Tell your team member that you value their input and dedication, but that they must work to improve their performance on the job.

However, it is very important to avoid blame. Instead, position the discussion as a “conversation,” not an outright accusation. By acknowledging your team member’s place within the team, you can reframe the situation as a reflection of the state of the department’s ecosystem.

Finish the conversation with a strategy for improvement, and strict goals. Consider instituting a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), with a deadline. Schedule a follow-up meeting a few weeks in the future, and follow up.

Scenario 2: Lay-offs

The Approach: “We’re Sad to Say This, But…”

Layoffs in a company can happen for any number of reasons. Your company might be in the middle of a merger or other restructuring process. Perhaps new system processes have made a certain department redundant. Or it could be a simple response to necessary budgeting requirements.

Regardless, most employees won’t be thrilled to find out about layoffs, and it’s usually understood that the leaders deliver bad news. How to begin?

Start by gathering your research. Make sure that your reasoning behind this large decision is bulletproof. Understandably, when hearing news like this, your team will most likely bombard you with questions – you need to be prepared to answer them.

Not every question merits a concrete response – some topics will not be available for public knowledge. But for this reason alone, it’s important to complete your due diligence so you’re aware of which subjects are off the table, and which are fair game.

Next, determine your strategy. Will the layoffs affect a small group of people, or a large portion of your company? If it’s a small, select group of employees, delivering this news individually – before any other employees hear news – is the best course of action.

Bring along a member of HR to ensure the process goes smoothly, and highlight your gratitude for their performance. Depending on your relationship with the employee, offer whatever is within your realm of possibility to ease the discussion – perhaps your company can continue benefits for a certain amount of time, or you can offer to be a sterling reference for their upcoming job search.

But as mentioned, be prepared for any wide range of emotions. Stay firm but gracious, and try to keep these meetings as quick and painless as possible.

Finally, you will have to announce this decision to the rest of the team. Once those affected have been informed, decide with the rest of your management team how best to tell your current employees.

Not every decision merits a mass meeting. (These could even backfire if your staff is outspoken enough to turn this sort of event into an open forum, town-hall situation.)

But depending on your corporate culture, and the size of your team, figure out the best forum to break this news. A mass email may seem cold, but it’s also the most effective way of explaining the situation.

Keep your wording straightforward and sincere, with an upbeat turn. Layoffs almost certainly lower the morale of a team, but this can be counteracted with the right attitude.

Scenario 3: Corporate Financial Struggles

The Approach: “We’re In This Together”

Ideally, each quarter at your company would bring more growth than the last. Your sales would flourish, and the right employees would receive the right recognition, financially or otherwise. However, sometimes your company’s P&L reports reflect more “L” than “P”.

How do you inform the members of your team about budget cuts? About the effects on their end-of-year bonuses? And most importantly, how can you deliver this news without becoming the most hated man in the company?

When talking to your company’s financial advisers, work to create a solution that continues to compensate your employees as promised. Certain events may suffer, like Christmas parties or team building activities. But salaries should be maintained, and bonuses should be not be compromised, if contractually guaranteed.

Once you’re sure of how your company’s financial situation will affect your staff, prepare a statement with your colleagues in upper management.

Issue your statement as a company wide memo, and consider including some FAQ’s to head off the most commonly anticipated questions: how will this affect the employees? What’s the status of the company? Will there be any long-term issues or foreseeable problems for your employees?

Reiterate the importance of your employees for your company. Loyalty goes a long way. If your employees feel valued, they’ll be more likely to sit tight and help you weather a financial storm. Be approachable and open with your employees, and chances are, they’ll reward your transparency.

The best leaders deliver bad news with an honest and sympathetic approach. Do the same, and your company will be able to overcome most challenges in your path.

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