I’ve noticed increasing amounts of these kinds of stories in the newsletters I read to help me be a better manager, including Better Manager, Management Improvement, Improving Management, Managing Better Improvements, Brief Briefings and In Over Your Head.
In these esteemed publications, amid stories with headlines such as, ‘Avoid fuzzy goals’, ‘Get the most from teambuilding sessions’ and ‘Pick the right kind of attorney for your sexual harassment hearing’, are tips and tactics on how to fulfill the time-honoured managerial role of being the bearer of bad news.
For starters, don’t assume that what you might think is bad news is what your employees think is ‘bad news’. Is it bad news that the distribution centre in Indianapolis is being closed? Not if your staff has been continually frustrated with the centre’s abysmal performance.
Is it bad news that your company is cutting staff? Not if your employees understand that by ‘staff’ you mean ‘yourself’. Is it bad news that employees will have to pay more for their health insurance? Not if you refer to it as a ‘wellness incentive’.
"I like to deliver bad news to my staff first thing in the morning, while they are still groggy from lack of sleep and their reflexes are dull enough that I can keep them from getting a good grip on my neck"
Taking up the challenge
This last example is an important one, because the language you use in conveying bad news is of utmost importance. Always strive to avoid negative words. What’s a negative word? ‘Problem’ is one. Instead, use ‘opportunity’, so that you would say something like ‘Our wellness incentive looks like a spectacular opportunity!’
Particularly when it comes to conveying bad news, my newsletter advises, ‘…use language that is free of bias regarding culture, gender, race, ethnicity, age and disability’. Save expressions such as, ‘the blind Swede honky geezers really came up with an intractable opportunity this time’ for other venues, such as your customer appreciation events.
‘Challenge’ is another word that should become a familiar part of your vocabulary. Use it as a substitute for negative words such as ‘debacle’, ‘disaster’, ‘layoffs’, ‘pension fund bankruptcy’, ‘subpoena’, ‘fraud’, ‘cyst’ and ‘consultants’.
Another thing to consider when delivering the news of a spectacular opportunity is the time of day you deliver it. Some managers wait until late in the day, knowing that employees will soon disperse and be less likely to seethe among themselves about the latest exciting challenge.
I like to deliver bad news to my staff first thing in the morning, while they are still groggy from lack of sleep and their reflexes are dull enough that I can keep them from getting a good grip on my neck. But the key point here is not to wait too long, because challenging news travels fast.
The personal touch
When delivering challenging news, ‘focus on what team mates can do, not on what they can’t control’ my newsletters advise. Instead of saying, ‘Lawrence’s criminal conviction will leave us shorthanded for two to four years,’ tell team members, ‘if you’ve been praying for unpaid overtime, today is your lucky day!’ or ‘you’re really going to grow as a professional by doing Lawrence’s job, too’. It is also good to remind employees not to worry about those things that they can’t control, which in most companies is approximately everything.
One other thing: when delivering non-good news, always do it in person. Never use email. Email is the coward’s way out. Email also tempts you to get cute and use a subject line such as ‘finally – the time off you dreamed of!’ to announce a factory shutdown. Ideally, you should give the news in person from behind a large, clean plate of bulletproof glass and over a decent public address system featuring tamper proof speakers. You know – like the kind you use when visiting Lawrence.