Delivering Bad News

How to Deliver Bad News to Your Staff

Written By Sarah Hodges

“We’re changing our benefits plan next year, and I need to know how to deliver the news to our staff,” said an executive coaching client in a recent session.

The delivery of bad news is a common topic that comes up whenever I’m coaching a leader who sees the value in an engaged culture.  They know that sometimes they have to make hard decisions for the good of the organization as a whole, but they also want to protect employee morale.

“How should I tell them?” he asked.

I explained that when humans hear bad news, they often experience an immediate stress response.  Neurologically, this means they’re suddenly operating from Lizard Brain, a human’s most primitive brain function, and they want to fight, flee, or freeze. 

Leaders then commonly make the mistake of trying to soften the bad news by explaining the reasons why they made this decision, but this is a fools’ errand because reasoning skills and logic occur in a more evolved part of the brain.

“If you follow-up bad news with reasons, the panicked employee can’t hear you because the part of their brain that uses reason is off-line,” I explained to my client.

“So, what do I do?” he asked.

“You use empathy,” I said.

Empathy language helps soothe the stress response by bringing higher brain function back on-line so the employee can hear your reasons. 

But it’s not enough to just say, “I understand how you feel.” 

So, I gave my client these six simple steps for delivering bad news while retaining employee morale:

#1. Imagine what emotions they feel and label them (empathy). 

#2. Deliver the bad news. 

#3. Imagine what they feel and label it again (more empathy). 

#4. Ask if they would like to hear the reasons so they can better understand it (primes their brain for openness).

#5. Explain the reasons. 

#6. Ask what questions they have.

An example of this approach might sound like, “You guys, I imagine you’ll probably feel disappointed to hear this, but we’re changing our benefits structure next year and removing some benefits you’re used to.  This probably feels frustrating to hear, so for the purpose of full transparency, I’d like to share the reasons why we had to make this difficult decision and then give you an opportunity to ask questions.  Would that be ok?”

Delivering bad news is a difficult part of being a leader.  But, by harnessing basic knowledge of applied human neurobiology, you can protect your organizations’ culture and use these difficult situations to build trust and rapport.  

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