As McDonough School of Business Professor Robert J. Bies explained in the post Delivering Bad News: How To Do It To Minimize Fallout, there are three critical phases to communicating bad news: Preparation, Delivery, Transition.
Yet, what happens when leaders don’t recognize that their news is bad news? It sounds unlikely, but that’s what can occur with messages of change.
You may be thinking, “But change is a good thing! It’s new and exciting. It’s necessary to keep up in business today.”
You may be right.
However, Bies finds that when companies announce change – such as a new strategic direction or initiative – it is exciting to the announcers, but the people hearing the message often construe it as bad news.
He warns that change has become a popular buzzword in business and sometimes leaders get so caught up in the innovation of change that they neglect to pay attention to how it may be received by employees. Change may not necessarily mean people will lose their jobs, but it means they are going to have to learn new skills and processes or alter the way they perform their jobs. This is not always welcome news.
“When change introduces something new, it also means you are losing something old,” explains Bies. “There is a sense of loss or ending, and leaders don’t always pay attention to that part.”
He believes that “information is the lifeblood of leadership,” and those who successfully communicate change are empathetic leaders – they are in-tune with how messages will be received. Most employees value control and predictability, but even the most exciting change can threaten that. Bies advises that one of the best communicative actions a leader can take is to message change with “The Why and The Way.”
- The Why: The reason for the change.
- The Way: The plan for transition; how the organization will move forward and what it means for employees on a daily basis. This plan should be communicated, even if the plan isn’t completely finalized.
“Communicating in this manner sounds really simple,” said Bies. “But you would be surprised how many executives don’t do it.”
Robert J. Bies (Ph.D., Stanford University) is Professor of Management and Founder of the Executive Master’s in Leadership Program at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. His work specializes in leadership, the delivery of bad news, change and innovation, and organizational justice.