We’ve all heard someone say, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” We have sayings like this because delivering bad news is a difficult job. Unfortunately telling people hard things is unavoidable. Bad news is not only part of life, it is part of leadership.
- If you are an employer, you might need to tell someone that their position is being eliminated.
- If you are a company, you might need to tell your customers that there is a defect with your product.
- If you are a parent, you might need to tell your high school senior that the family is moving in the middle of the school year.
Training programs for leaders tend to focus on managing people and resources and for good reason. However, telling people things they do not want to hear is an important part of leadership as well.
Based on my experience as an orthopedic surgeon, here are some of the things I have learned about sharing bad news with others.
- Be personal. Do the dirty work yourself and in-person when possible. People always do better when they receive bad news from a person instead of a computer or a cell phone. Sometimes we are afraid of dealing with conflict, but if you try to get out the “easy” way, people are more likely to be upset.
- Be direct. It always helps to just lay the cards on the table. Get to the critical information without too much delay. Once you try to start explaining away things, people get the sense something is up. It is easier on everybody to get down to business. You need to get to your destination without taking the scenic route.
- Be succinct. Once you are direct and honest, do not elaborate on the issue longer than is necessary. Be available to answer pertinent questions, but do not feel that you have to make a long defense or try to explain things over and over again.
- Be honest. Always tell the truth. This applies to every aspect of life, but for some reason when we are giving people bad news we try to wiggle around the truth. Even though it may be difficult at the time, honesty is always the best option. If people find out that you lied to them later on, it will only make things worse.
- Be kind. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what it would be like for you to receive the same news you are about to give. This will make it easier for you to say things in a compassionate, considerate way. How you interact with people, instead of the specific words you say, may be the thing they remember most about your conversation.
- Be patient. I have learned this one the hard way in my marriage. Anytime I discuss something difficult with my wife, it is important to give her time to evaluate the difficult information. Expecting an immediate response from someone may be just as hard on them as hearing the bad news.
To be effective leaders, we must develop the ability to deliver bad news with grace and honesty. These six guidelines will help us do so.