Posted in Company culture | by: Kira Klaas

Messing Up Gracefully: How to Deliver (and Deal with) Bad News

Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” — Colin Powell

Watching the Pokemon Go frenzy this week has us thinking about making mistakes. People who chase virtual reality creatures around the real world have experienced car crashes, breakups, and general mayhemall in the name of fun.

But chasing profits can be as dangerous as chasing Pikachus when all the responsibility for doing things right sits on your shoulders. Assuming you’re at least a little imperfect, one of the many balls you’re juggling is going to hit the ground every once in awhile.

So what do you do when you’ve let down employees or have bad news to share? The most productive way forward is is to deal with the problem — effectively, professionally, and in a forward-facing way. Joshua Margolis at the Harvard Business School laid out this basic framework for breaking bad news:

Do:

  • Understand why the decision was made before sharing the news
  • Prepare and rehearse what you’re going to say
  • Explain the rationale and the process for making the decision

Don’t:

  • Sugarcoat the news — be clear and direct
  • Let your body language belie your words
  • Allow people to debate the merits of the decision — focus on moving forward

Follow the Ten Commandments

While being open and direct is a great place to start, the timing and delivery also matter. Forbes’ ten commandments for delivering bad news makes for a nice guide when things go wrong:

  • The 10th Commandment: Thou shalt never surprise.
  • The 9th Commandment: Thou shalt never delay.
  • The 8th Commandment: Thou shalt never hide the facts.
  • The 7th Commandment: Thou shalt always put it in writing.
  • The 6th Commandment: Thou shalt always justify.
  • The 5th Commandment: Thou shalt always look for the silver lining.
  • The 4th Commandment: Thou shalt always bring solutions.
  • The 3rd Commandment: Thou shalt always remember your multiple audiences.
  • The 2nd Commandment: Thou shalt always follow up and follow through.
  • The 1st Commandment: Thou shalt always treat people with respect and dignity.

Rebuild Trust

It’s tempting to rush through bad news just to get it over with, but you should take your time with it and make sure you’re empathetic to how it impacts employees. It can be easy to lose sight of them (especially if the bad news is likely to have a bigger personal impact on you).

At a SHRM event, Andrea P. Howe recommended delivering the news in a way that shows empathy and builds trust. In her view, you want to establish reliability, establish intimacy, and shy away from being oriented around yourself. “There’s a hidden dimension of credibility that most of us forget about — and that’s truthfulness,” she said. “Be willing to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I really screwed that up.’ “

If You’re on the Receiving End…

But let’s say you’re the unlucky one who’s getting the bad news. Hopefully the bearer has read the above advice and delivers the blow in a timely, non-sugarcoated, and empathetic manner. Whether they do or don’t, we liked this piece on how super confident people react to bad news by being proactive and positive in responding to it, because oftentimes your composure when receiving a whammy can dictate how long or severely the effects of the bad news last.

If you’re still feeling unsure of how to get through it, you can always make a meme to share how you’re feeling. That’s certainly what we would have done if we had to explain a Pokemon-related car accident this week.

“The bad news is nothing lasts forever,

The good news is nothing lasts forever.”

― J. Cole

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About Kira Klaas

Kira Klaas is on the marketing team at Gusto, and enables customers to learn, share their stories, and be a part of the business community through Gusto’s social media network. You can get in touch with Kira here.