How To Deliver Bad News
Few conversations are as disappointing as ones where bad news goes undiscussed. Maybe it is a talk with your boss about missing your bonus. Perhaps it is a discussion with your team about a missed deadline. It could be telling your spouse about that fourth speeding ticket. Regardless, when you don’t get the bad news on the table, it lingers and can paralyze any creative thought you would otherwise have. Worse, it can impact subsequent conversations or meeting you have that have nothing to do with the elephant-discussion.
For some customers we have coached on this topic, delivering bad news one-on-one is harder than in a presentation. For me, the presentation is much harder. Why? I can’t read everyone’s face or body language to assess the impact. It’s also a harsh environment to get people to speak up. Most people do not like conflict, and they especially do not like conflict in front of others, especially in a culture where groupthink predominates.
One of the things that makes delivering bad news challenging is that the reactions are unpredictable. Some people might take it personally and voice that reaction. Others may obsess on the “why.” Some will look at this as an opportunity to gain an edge on their cause. Whichever audience types you have, some will voice it to you during the presentations and others will express it to their peers afterward.
The good news is that all of this is normal and there are steps you can follow that set an example for how to discuss and handle bad news.
Step 1: Do not use a slide to deliver the bad news. As Peyton Manning says, when things are going great, it’s the team; but when things are bad, you shoulder all the blame. When the bad news comes out of your mouth, you want all eyes on you, not your slide. Show your audience that you understand bad news happens and we have to own it. Do that by having the attention of the audience on you and not hiding behind visual aids.
Step 2: People can handle the truth. If you can not tell your audience the truth, you are likely setting yourself up for trust issues later. I am not saying that people will accept that bad things happen and let you off the hook. What I am sure of is that by telling the truth, the next time you have to deliver the bad news, you will have your credibility.
Step 3: Be hard on the issue and soft on the person. When presenting why something bad has happened, do not associate it with a specific person, but associate it to a context. Do not say that Barbara did not do her job; you need to say that Quality was unable to complete their task because other priorities conflicted with yours. If John hasn’t delivered on his sales plan, let the audience know why. If the issue indeed is a personal issue, then work with their manager on precisely what to say and how to handle.
Step 4: Let it breathe. Do not follow up the bad news with tons of technical data that needs their full attention. Your audience will be processing the news and will not be able to give 100% of their focus on the subsequent slides. Deliver the bad news, then step through the following information slowly and deliberately.
Step 5: End the presentation with what happens next. It is important to not confuse this with “end on a positive note.” In some cases, there is not a positive note. The point here is that you want to tell the audience what happens next. Can they expect a follow-up tomorrow via email? Will there be another meeting? Will talking point be sent out? Give the audience the ability to carry forward the bad news AND the next steps - don’t just leave them with the bad news.
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