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How To Deliver Difficult News With Compassion To Your Employees

By | Published on | 8 min read
<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >How To Deliver Difficult News With Compassion To Your Employees</span>

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. It’s uncomfortable, stressful, and often, emotional. Feelings can get hurt. Jobs and money might be on the line. While you may not be the ultimate decision-maker—or even agree with the decision—the heavy burden of relaying the bad news to your team has fallen on your shoulders.

Great! Now what?

When it comes to bad news, it’s all about the delivery. 

Hopefully, you’ve landed on this post before you have to tell your employees that they didn’t get the promotion they asked for, or that a promised benefit is being held up by budget. Bad news, as we all know, can take on many forms.

It could be that your team can’t work from home anymore, that someone has less-than-great performance reviews, that a project they worked on has been postponed, or there’s a change in the company benefits and perks. 

Whatever the bad news is, there is a right way and a (very) wrong way to deliver it. As a manager, you play for both teams: your employees’ and your boss’s.

“You walk a fine line between being a company advocate and an employee advocate,” writes talent management expert, Susan Heathfield.

This is a challenging position to be in when you have news that negatively impacts members of your team. You may feel the need to protect them, join them and fight against the powers above, or sugar-coat the bad news. However, if the decision is final, none of the above will help. It could actually make the situation a whole lot worse. 

Your job is to determine how to deliver the unfortunate news like the pro that you are. It will save you, your team, and your company a world of unnecessary extra pain.   

Your Due-Diligence: Getting Clear On The Who, What, And Why 

First thing’s first: gather the facts and come to the conversation prepared. 

Your team deserves to know how and why the decision came to be. It is also the first thing they’re going to ask you after you deliver the news. As the manager, it’s your job to talk to the executives and human resources (or whoever is involved in the decision-making process) and ensure that you understand the context and rationale behind the verdict. 

Even if you don’t necessarily agree with the decision, it’s important to have the context in order to communicate the news back to your team. This is especially true if the decision is set in stone and there is nothing you can do about it.

It’s okay to not have all of the answers but be prepared for lots of questions to come up during the conversation. In fact, write down a list of any questions that could come up and know your answers ahead of time. This will communicate to your team that you’re informed on issues they care about and have taken the time to find potential resolutions. Approaching a difficult conversation prepared shows that you truly care and sympathize with your employees. 

How To Prepare Yourself To Deliver Bad News To Your Team

Consider this example: 

An all-star employee is asking for a raise that you think they deserve, but you just found out from HR that it has been rejected. Your due diligence before speaking with that employee is to get to the bottom of who made that decision and why the request was denied. 

You may have to do some digging and asking around to get the answers you need and to understand the whole picture. In one scenario, you may find out that your company’s executives decided that because sales targets haven’t been met, all raises were placed on hold until sales increased. This could be an opportunity for your entire team to creatively problem-solve ways to bring in new business—for the good of more than just that one employee. 

In another scenario, you may learn that HR has a cap on wages for that particular role, and the employee isn’t ready for the promotion needed to receive that raise. There may be several additional steps that they need to complete in order to qualify for the promotion. Despite not being the best outcome, this could be an opportunity to work with the employee and help them achieve that promotional goal.

Turn The Context Behind Your Bad News Into A Learning Opportunity

Whenever possible, use your learnings as an opportunity to share constructive and helpful feedback that motivates your employee (rather than bad news and negative feedback that only deflates them). Turning a negative into a positive is also a great opportunity for you to prove yourself as a resilient leader. It may even strengthen your relationships and build trust with both your employees and employers. 

Keep in mind that building trust means being transparent, clear, and honest about the news you deliver, the impact it may have, and the next steps that need to occur. Avoid instilling false hope by communicating clearly and directly with your employees.

The Right (And Wrong) Way To Deliver Bad News To Your Team

You have the bad news, the context behind the decision, your talking points, potential questions and answers, and constructive ideas on how to move forward. You might have even practiced what you’re going to say in the mirror or with a loved one—which may not win you an Emmy, but is always a good idea. 

Now cut out the preamble from your speech. 

Studies show that the wrong way to deliver bad news is by beating around the bush. Here is what you need to do in order to avoid this:

Rip Off The Band-Aid And Tell Your Bad News

If you call a meeting out-of-the-blue and there are negative rumors circulating, no one will listen to your lengthy preamble or sugar-coated speech. They’re all too worried about or focused on the news that you’re preparing to share—and how it might affect them. 

A simple “we have to talk” or “I have some bad news” is best in most scenarios. This will give your employees a moment to emotionally acknowledge that you have difficult news without making everyone sweat through it for long (yourself included). 

What you consider a gradual introduction is actually a buffer to avoid getting to the point. A rambling pre-speech about “the importance of change in a company” is your own personal warm-up to help you overcome the anxiety-ridden hurdle that is in front of you. The faster you share the news, the faster everyone can find relief and alternative solutions.

In fact, in one study, participants were given a range of bad-news scenarios all delivered with two approaches: one with a buffer and one without. Unsurprisingly, the buffer didn’t make the bad news any easier to swallow. 

All of the participants preferred clarity and directness with little to no buffer at all. 

6 Steps (And The Do’s And Don'ts) To Break The News 

In general, sharing bad news follows a bit of a formula:

  1. Share the bad news 
  2. Give context
  3. Ask if they have questions
  4. Give them time 
  5. Listen
  6. Talk about the next steps

More specifically, there are a few do’s and don’t’s around how you deliver the bad news and provide that context. Again, it’s all about the delivery. If you’re trying to remain a neutral, clear, confident, and empathetic leader, don’t avoid eye contact. If you’re crying or fidgeting, you are sending mixed signals.  

Here is what you should do:

  • Prepare ahead of time 
  • Practice what you’ll say
  • Get to the point
  • Speak clearly and with confidence
  • Be transparent
  • Provide context 
  • Give time and space for questions
  • Listen 
  • Be empathetic
  • Share constructive next steps

Here are a few things to avoid when delivering bad news:

  • Sugar-coating the news
  • Unnecessary preamble
  • Using too much jargon or confusing business-speak
  • Leaving room for confusion or false hopes
  • Overpromising
  • Picking sides
  • Avoiding responsibility
  • Blaming others or getting defensive

Let’s put some of this into action with our example from earlier. 

Delivering Bad News Like A Pro

Referring back to our all-star employee, here is an example of how the conversation could go if you deliver the news like a pro.  

“[Insert name], I sent your request for a raise to human resources and it has been denied, unfortunately. As you know, the company has had a challenging year with sales. Until we exceed our sales targets for two quarters in a row, we can’t afford to give raises. Although I’m sure this comes as a disappointment, I want you to know how truly valued you are. I will continue to advocate for you and have it on my calendar to check back in two months.” 

Gauge their body language and give them a chance to respond—or ask if they have any questions for you. Give them time and space (however much they need) to talk, ask questions, or vent. 

Your job now is to listen and empathize. 

Creating Harmony Between The Company And Your Team

Remember, you are the bridge between your team and the rest of the company. You also set the tone for how your team works together. Think of yourself as both a partner and a parent in this situation. You need to manage both relationships individually in order for them to work together as a unit. 

It’s your job to find ways to create harmony and balance, even in tough situations when tensions are high (and careers or livelihoods are on the line).   

You may feel the tendency to take sides and join your team in an us-against-them mentality, but that will only jeopardize your integrity and leadership. Taking sides or over-empathizing may lead to doubt, confusion, false hopes, unhappiness, distrust, and chaos on your team. It could turn a bad situation worse—and your job could be on the line for it. 

Instead, always try to remain neutral. 

Accept the role as the connector between whoever made the final decision and whoever it may affect. This means that you can be empathetic and take the time to listen to and try to understand all points of view. However, in the end, the decision has been made and must be followed through.

Follow Up With Next Steps To Motivate And Inspire 

This is your opportunity to step up as a leader. It’s time to inspire and motivate your employees and encourage them to continue to work hard, regardless of the crappy situation at hand. 

Give them time and space to consider your input. Once they’re up for it, follow up with any actionable next steps. Together, you and your employees can brainstorm ways to overcome the hurdle that triggered the bad news in the first place.


Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!

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