Business Solutions Forum: How do I deliver bad news well?

Q. I'm sure I'm not alone with this problem these days, but I have some bad news to deliver to my employees. My customers and suppliers will not be too pleased either. Do you have any tips on how best to deliver bad news?

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Q. I’m sure I’m not alone with this problem these days, but I have some bad news to deliver to my employees. My customers and suppliers will not be too pleased either. Do you have any tips on how best to deliver bad news?

A. Great question, and congratulations on being interested in doing a good job of communicating this unfortunate news. Many individuals avoid telling bad news and it comes back to haunt them. So the first piece of advice is in the form of an adage: “In the absence of facts, people assume the worst.” The point is, be deliberate, clear, proactive and thorough with your communications (positive or negative) because if you don’t, people will assume you are keeping secrets, and they will assume the reason you are keeping secrets is because things are even worse than they really are.

Secondly, identify all of the different audiences that need to hear the news, anticipate their perspective and develop a custom message for each audience. Many people make the mistake of thinking that only a small audience needs to hear the news, but rumor mills are very powerful. If you aren’t delivering the news, the rumor mill is and you can be assured the news will take on a different flavor if you rely on the rumor mill.

You have already identified employees as the primary audience, and customers and suppliers as secondary audiences, and that is great. Also consider your bankers, accountants and attorneys. You might want to consider competitors (you want them to hear the message from your perspective first!) and community groups (e.g., the chamber of commerce). And don’t forget the media — especially trade media. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but again, it is better to have something appear in the media that you initiated than a story that originated from sources that include a potentially uninformed and disgruntled party.

Each of these groups has different ways of looking at your news so the message needs to reflect this. The employees might be concerned about losing their jobs; your customers will want to know if you will be a reliable supplier; your suppliers might worry about whether you will pay your bills.

Then anticipate questions, concerns, gripes and issues, and to the degree possible, address them in your initial message. You may not be able to eliminate the pain the news delivers, but at least they will know the truth and the whole truth.

Next, identify trendsetters and significant influencers within the key audiences and approach them first, if even by just a few minutes, and ask for their support. By involving them early, they can become part of the solution rather than making the situation worse. You can gauge their reaction and tailor your broader communications accordingly. When the rumor mill does go to work, they can be there to help quell the rumors and ensure your news continues being disseminated the right way in the right direction.

How people react to the news will still largely be in their hands, but you should be able to sleep better at night knowing you handled this challenging task thoughtfully, proactively, transparently and with integrity.

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