As an executive, you’re often faced with the daunting role of being the bearer of bad news. It’s unavoidable. The good news is that there are ways to help you deliver that less-than-desirable news constructively and effectively.
Robert J. Bies, professor at the McDonough School of Business, believes that managers struggle to deliver bad news because they lack a framework to guide their decision-making and process in delivering it, no matter the scale or gravity of the message.
“Bad news isn’t just the announcement of massive lay-offs or plant closings,” explains Bies. “It can come in everyday forms like negative performance evaluations or even saying ‘no’ to a request. Bad news is embedded in the social fabric of organizations.”
In his study, The Delivery of Bad News in Organizations: A Framework for Analysis, Bies establishes an integrative three-pronged strategic framework to navigate managers through the process of delivering bad news. Across all three phases – Preparation, Delivery, Transition – there are certain bad news management activities identified that are associated with a more positive view of the news, less anger and blame, a greater sense of fairness, and a higher approval of the person delivering the news.
Bies advises that leaders pay particular attention to Preparation and Transition phases, as they can often be overlooked. For example, he encourages all executives – particularly those delivering serious bad news – to prepare for delivery through rehearsal.
“Clearly the more serious the news, the more preparation is needed prior to the actual delivery,” he explains. “It’s like practicing for a basketball game. You want to practice your free throws if you want to make them under game-like conditions.”
And despite your relief at “making those free throws,” you must be mindful that your job is not yet done. The transition phase can be critical.
“Bad news creates two different types of problems – performance and political,” warns Bies. “When people hear bad news, they want to hear that some solutions are being implemented quickly. Part of the transition phase is in the public relations of acknowledging the problem has been corrected and that the organization is back on track.”
Bies’ last tip is to be aware of all of your audiences, not just the person to whom you are delivering the news. For example, if you are dealing with an issue like employee lay-offs, you can’t forget about the “survivors.” They will take note of how you handled the news and it could have an effect on how they perceive you as a manager or even their role within and loyalty to the organization.
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.