The Right Way to Deliver Bad News to Your Team
“Because I am better than the rest of you, this is your problem. Good luck.”
Would that message inspire you? Would you trust an organization to navigate successfully the next challenge if this were the message it offered in response to today’s crisis?
Of course not. Yet, this is exactly the message most leaders communicate when facing bad news, like the departure of a critical customer to a competitor or the team of hard-working people that must be terminated during an economic downturn.
What message should a company communicate in tough times? What message do you want your organization to retain going forward? What distinguishes success from failure when it comes to communicating bad news to your organization?
Early in my entrepreneurial journey, once my board and I had digested the full impact of the recession that was ravaging our national economy, I faced the horrible task of closing a regional office that employed 50 people. Our rapid growth consumed cash, and our financial survival required that conserving cash become my new top priority. I had traveled the CEO’s road for a few years and had unfortunately gained experience in terminating underperforming employees. But this was new; I had never terminated 50 people – especially not 50 people who were performing perfectly well. They had done nothing wrong.
Fortunately for me, my vice president of human resources was a superstar. She had deep experience dealing with the good, the bad, and the horrible – like the job of terminating 50 people. As we prepared for that dark day, she walked me through the termination letter she would deliver. She explained the outplacement services we would provide. She summarized our severance policy and helped me understand the window of time each terminated employee would have to find a new job.
I marveled at the VP’s composure, her preparedness, and her ability to lead this difficult process. As I listened to her, I thought to myself, “This is why she is here. This is her job.” We employed hundreds of people. Perhaps it would be better for me to stay at headquarters and focus on those employees who would remain with the organization. Besides, I was the CEO. If I stayed back at headquarters, I could better prepare to address the media and our key customers.
This decision as to whose job it is to deliver bad news is where most leaders fail, missing a critical opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the mission and delegating the unpleasant task to avoid the painful experience of taking ownership of the crisis. When leaders delegate this task, they unwittingly communicate the message, “I am above the rest of you.” Or, “This is your problem.” Or, even worse, “My needs come first. My team merely shows up on Monday morning to make me wealthier and more powerful.”
On the other hand, when a great leader assumes responsibility for communicating the bad news, they communicate the following messages:
“We are all responsible to some degree.”
“We are in this together.”
“I, as the leader, am handling this crisis because this is necessary to achieve our mission.”
When I ultimately decided to get on the plane and deliver the news myself, I did not appreciate the powerful moment I was about to experience in my own leadership development. I did not realize that my team and I would move through this crisis and ultimately build one of the ten largest companies in the United States fiber-based telecommunications industry, Integra Telecom.
The internal struggle as to whose job it is to deliver bad news is one of many opportunities leaders have to “fuse” their teams together around a shared mission, a leadership process I came to describe as “Fusion Leadership.” Fusion leaders obsess over the questions of how to inspire the following of others, how to earn the loyalties of an organization, and how to motivate teams of people to manifest an organization’s mission.
When leaders fall victim to the selfish needs of their egos – as when delegating the communication of bad news – they drive a wedge between their team and the organization’s mission. The leader effectively tells the team their personal needs are more important than the organization’s mission. That is a demotivating message to send. People want to work together toward a cause or mission; they are repelled by the notion of working to simply fulfill their boss’s personal needs.
Fusion leaders look for every opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the mission. They consider critical questions, like:
When you conduct a meeting, who becomes the smartest person in the room?
Whom do you prioritize on your calendar when you allocate your precious time?
How much do you pay yourself compared to how much you pay others who are also working to realize the mission?
Next time your organization sees a crisis looming over the horizon, ask yourself: “Is this an opportunity to demonstrate my commitment to our mission? Whose job is it to deliver the bad news?”
Dudley Slater is coauthor, with Steve Taylor, of Fusion Leadership: Unleashing The Movement of Monday Morning Enthusiasts.