Being a leader - how to deliver bad news?
Earlier this week, I was asked to participate in a senior management VC of one of the industry’s leading organizations. The main issue on the virtual table was how to communicate impending disappointing news (layoffs, salary reductions, etc.) to their employees.
As we all settled into the virtual conference room, one of the participants, who seemed a little agitated, spoke up:
“I might be preaching to the choir, but I really can’t stand those cliches that have been going around. You know, ‘every cloud has its silver lining,’ or ‘making lemonade out of lemons.’ Our employees deserve a heck of a lot more than that.”
I smiled and gave a big nod of approval. I took the floor.
“From my point of view, I don’t have an issue with what these kinds of sayings want to teach us. What I do have a problem with, though, is how they are used.”
“What do you mean, Etika,” another participant asked.
“Look, I am well-aware of the fact that delivering disappointing news to your employees is probably one of the most challenging and frustrating parts of being a leader. I’ve seen this played out many times, and it’s never pleasant, no matter how it’s packaged.”
I switched to gallery view on my VC software and saw all of the talking heads nod in agreement.
I continued, “But when you approach your employees with disappointing news, you have to put yourselves in their shoes first. This is definitely not the time to make things easy for yourselves. You’re the leaders here. You’re going to have to put yourselves out there so that they can feel how difficult it is for you to face them.”
I looked out at the Hollywood Squares and noticed a little confusion.
“I have a hunch that today many of you expected me to come with a written script to read to your employees, filled with wise advice, brimming with optimism towards the future - sayings such as, ‘when one door closes, another opens.’” But that’s not going to happen today.
I looked at my screen. Silence. Was my laptop frozen? No, they were in shock.
“Now, please don’t get me wrong,” I continued. “Those of you who’ve worked with me over the years know that I’m the first person to try to turn a crisis into an opportunity. However, as I said before, you have to put ourselves in your employees’ shoes. And frankly, they’re just not ready to hear about the “day after.” They are worried about tomorrow.”
“In fact,” I said, “any talk of optimism will probably backfire.”
I peered into my screen, trying my best to read the body language of the other participants. I could see they were looking for answers.
“So here’s what I think would be an effective way to approach things. First, each part of the population needs to hear a specific message for their particular situation. This will require dividing employees into groups, such as those who are facing a salary reduction and those about to be laid off. Then, these groups need to be separated again according to level, such as middle managers and line employees. You will need to hold separate meetings with each subgroup.”
I continued, “Begin each meeting by genuinely showing both how uncomfortable you are with the situation as well as the personal sacrifices you are making to keep the organization going. This will help your employees begin to connect with you, at least on a basic level. Not only will they see that you’re also affected, they’ll also understand you’re doing your best to restore things for them as quickly as possible.”
“The next stage is very important,” I emphasized. “Here, you have to demonstrate that the organization wants to help them during this time of crisis. It’ll take some planning, but for example, you could provide guidance in managing finances or mini-courses in improving professional skills. I’m sure you have the in-house talents for all kinds of offerings. Under today’s circumstances, all it takes is a laptop and goodwill.”
I conceded, “Of course, there’s no substitute for bringing back a full salary and stable job. But the feeling that the organization is trying, under these exceptional circumstances, to do what it can, will at least offer some encouragement to employees as they navigate this crisis.”
Many of the faces began to lighten up and I could sense wheels turning in the minds of most participants. They were formulating plans.
“I’ll leave you with this,” I said. “It’s crucial, especially since we can’t meet face-to-face, that our messages are both clear and sincere. This is the time, as a leader, to rise to this occasion.
And always remember:
Great managers are made. Not born.
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