How to deliver bad news

thHaving to address a touchy subject can be feared more than having to speak to an audience of 10,000 people with nothing prepared. Just knowing that you have to deliver bad news to someone who isn’t expecting it will cause most people to mentally crumble. Because you don’t want to hurt anyone or crush their career.  And you REALLY don’t want to fight through all the backlash that follows the bad news like them hating you (because I’m assuming you’re a good person) or the organization, or other people. The inner turmoil and interpersonal discomfort will send the common leader or manager to the hills running (or in most cases taking a sick day hoping it will blow over without their involvement). But that’s not an option for good leaders. Sometimes we have to put on our big boy pants and do things we don’t like to do.

When the common person delivers bad news to another party, the party sometimes reacts negatively, sometimes delays their frustrations and releases later in small increments, and other times just shuts down completely.

The reason is they feel helpless. You’ve left them with nothing to do.  The decision has been made and there is nothing they can do about it. Reacting negatively is the only sense of control they have left and most of the time it’s directed at you. Telling someone “That’s just the way it is” or “It is what it is” infuriates people.

But there is hope for the brave at heart. There is a method you can use that leave the person with their dignity and you with your class.  This is something I’ve been developing for a while and was finally able to wrap my head around it enough to put it is simple terms. I call it BAD NEWS with AN ESCAPE PLAN.

Start off like this, “I need to cover a couple things with you….” Look them square in the face and reveal what the bad news is. Give them a minute to digest it, then offer them as escape plan. Don’t leave them in the hole you just tossed them in without propping up a ladder.

Here are a few examples of escape plans:

  • Tell them what the next step is.
    • One of my favorite movies is MoneyBall. Brad Pitts character is teaching his young apprentice how to tell a player he is being released from the team. It was simple and straight forward. “John you’ve been traded to Chicago, Jill will handle all your paperwork and arrangements. Just get with her this afternoon.” (I realize that’s probably not word for word of how it went it the movie but you get the point of the idea).
  • Give them an alternative
    • “I can’t cut the price as low as you want it but I can have it delivered tomorrow with a 100% satisfaction guarantee.”
  • Tell them their options of how to react
    • “Look, I know how disappointing this is but you have a couple options of how to digest this and react. You can blame the world and become bitter or you can use this as a learning experience and show other people what a high level of class you really have. “
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4 thoughts on “How to deliver bad news

  1. Ann Koplow says:

    Thanks for delivering the good news here.

  2. Good advice – much needed in the corporate world of today where there is no dearth of bad news. However, many a time, you have to deliver the bad news merely as an agent of the organization and you really have no viable options to offer other than what sound like motherhood statements – that is when it really takes a toll!

  3. Love the idea of the escape plan – it’s a good way to look at it – and a great image to help remind me to always include one (when possible). I’m a big believer in not bringing forward a problem without a solution and I think this could fit in well!

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