Giving bad news

Giving Bad News Like the Brave

Mature optimism is a cornerstone of healthy living. If you’re habitually communicating “The sky is falling!” people draw the conclusion that you’re overwhelmed, unprepared, and incapable of dealing with bad situations.  None of these impressions helps you build credibility as a strong communicator.

That said, neither do strong leaders subscribe to the Emperor-Has-No-Clothes philosophy of pep talks and platitudes, pretending that all is well. But we also know that words shape thought. So these two competing philosophies create a predicament: How “upfront” should we be with bad news?


How to Deliver Bad News in a Positive Way

In the midst of bad news, you will do well to keep in mind these guidelines for delivering bad news face to face or by email.


Acknowledge the Facts

If the economy is free-falling, say so. If sales are sinking, say so.  If the team is performing poorly, share your numbers.  If your organization looks lousy beside the competition, come clean about the market feedback.

Nothing opens people’s minds and raises their estimation of your credibility like admitting the truth—and nothing decreases your credibility like ignoring the obvious or blaming, demonizing, or scapegoating others.  You understand how pathetic that makes politicians look if you’ve ever heard them rationalize election results after a dramatic loss or listened to CEOs try to explain away poor earnings after failure to achieve their goals.

Small people shun responsibility.  Strong people shoulder it.


Stop Sugarcoating the Unknown and Unknowable

“Things will work—give it time!”  “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine.”  “It’ll all work itself out.  It always does.”  Such are the assurances parents give their kids.  You expect them and even appreciate them—at age thirteen.  But to an adult hearing such platitudes from bosses, colleagues, or friends who could not possibly know the future and how a situation will actually turn out, these remarks sound empty, if not insulting to your intelligence.

That’s not to say you can’t offer comforting words. You can and should.  But to be helpful and consoling, those words should be the right words.  Aim to get past the clichés and all-will-be-well platitudes to meaningful comments that encourage and give direction.


Focus on Options for the Future

In a negative situation, leaders focus others on positive alternatives and actions with the power of their words.  If you’re communicating about a tanking economy, the alternative may be to encourage listeners to change investment strategies for their 401K funds.  If you’re communicating to comfort employees after personal property destruction because of a weather-related disaster, you could encourage them to consider rebuilding in another area.  If you’re announcing a layoff–in addition to communicating compassion–you might focus on the option of new training for updated skills or offer contacts for their job search.


Structure the Message Appropriately

For either an email or conversation, organize your bad-news message in this way:

  1. Start on either a positive or neutral note.
  2. Elaborate on the current situation or your criteria/reasoning for making the negative decision.
  3. State the bad news (as positively as possible).
  4. Offer an alternative to meet the person’s goals, when possible.
  5. End with a goodwill statement focused on the future.


To increase your credibility in a bad-news situation, ditch a down-in-the-mouth demeanor.  As a leader, give helpful straight talk about the substantive issue.


Learn more ways to deliver news and communicate with your team in Communicate With Confidence!: How to Say It Right the First Time and Every Time. Click here for details.