How Successful Leaders Deliver Difficult News

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Part of being a strong leader is having the ability to effectively deliver difficult news.  Nobody wants to be the bad guy, and nobody wants to bear the negative message, but it is a business necessity in order to remain agile and competitive. Successful leadership entails understanding that this is a learned skill that has to be honed for optimal efficacy.  Following are some tips for delivering disappointing news:

Don’t Delay

It’s human nature to procrastinate the uncomfortable conversation.  Don’t do it.  Not only does this simply delay an activity that will need to be done anyway, it gives you too much time to overthink and create anxiety over it.  Once you know that bad news will need to be delivered, come up with a strategy and implement it quickly.

Be Direct

Resist the temptation to dance around the subject.  Avoid long pre-discussions on neutral topics to delay the inevitable.  Instead, get straight to the point – “the reason I brought you here today was to let you know…”  Be clear and concise.  Tolerate moments of silence to allow the person or audience to fully absorb what you’re saying.

Be Professionally Empathetic

There is a difference between being apologetic and empathetic.  Delivering a disappointing message with apology could imply uncertainty or a lack of confidence – steer away from this.  It is perfectly acceptable, however, to acknowledge the human element when delivering bad news.  You can indicate that you understand that the message may be difficult to hear, or that it is a difficult message to deliver.  Statements like that are honest and empathetic without implying apology or regret behind the message.

Respect Reactions

Depending on the message, it may or may not be advisable to solicit feedback from the person or audience.  If not, you can still listen to what is said or observe body language for a clue as to reaction.  Respect the reaction.  Don’t try to stop it (unless it becomes unprofessional or violent), and don’t try to change it.  Listen to or watch it, acknowledge it if appropriate (“I hear you saying that you are extremely angry, and I am sorry to hear that”), and allow the individual or audience the freedom to that reaction.

Know When to Say When

Sometimes when disappointing news is delivered, leaders get caught in a non-stop cycle of discussion about the news – that can go nowhere.  Either the recipient is unhappy, or the audience wants to change whatever the bad news is in the first place.  While it is professional and appropriate to respect reactions, it is not constructive to allow the reactions to take over the conversation and continue on in a non-productive manner.  If the exchange is no longer going anywhere, you need to acknowledge that and end it.  Being honest is the best way, simply stating that all points have been covered and that you feel the conversation is no longer productive.

Above all else, ensure that you understand the difficult news, are prepared to deliver it, and can remain calm, cool, and collected in the event of a negative or aggressive reaction.  Your behavior will set the example for the exchange and the appropriate reactions, so ensure you remain professional.  Understand the why behind the bad news, so that you can see the bigger picture and appreciate why a difficult conversation or presentation is in the best interest for your organization as a whole.

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