How to Give Bad News

How to Say What Needs to Be Said

When I was a new manager, I had the hardest time giving constructive feedback to my assistant. When it was time to share with her what she needed to know to help her improve, I couldn’t even get the words out. It was so difficult for me to say, that I had to try multiple times just to be able to tell her—because I was too concerned about saying what she might have thought was bad news.

bad news

My early days as a manager showed one extreme of improper communication in giving performance reviews. Other managers think that yelling the hard truth is the best way to give bad news. They think that it’s OK to say whatever they think needs to be said, without thinking about what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of what they said. Clearly both extremes are not helpful.

So how should we give bad news? What’s the best way to help employees improve? Here are four tips for how to say what needs to be said, even if it’s bad news.


1. Be current.


You don’t have to wait until the next performance review comes around to give bad news. Usually it’s better to get it over with. If you don’t want to say it, they probably don’t want to hear it either. But prolonging the inevitable does nobody any good.

You don’t want months to go by before you tell them the news. During those months, they could be using that time to change how they’re doing things. Waiting to give them bad news prevents them from putting that information to good use.

Like with any relationship, it’s best to keep short accounts. If you harbor this information for long, then it can change your perception of them while you keep it inside. Even though you don’t want to tell them the news, you will likely become frustrated by the behavior that you want them to change. But if you don’t say tell them, then they won’t know to do anything about it. And that will perpetuate the problem.

It’s best to share that bad news in conjunction with a recent event. Without context, they may not understand what you’re talking about. But if you have a recent event to point to, then they will more likely understand what you’re trying to say.

Be current with bad news. While it’s important to find the right time to share that information, don’t hang onto it any longer than you have to.


2. Be clear.


When you have to give bad news, make sure that what you say is clear. Don’t beat around the bush (like I did with my first assistant). Give them what they need to hear in order for them to change.

If you are having a hard time coming up with how to say it, try writing it out first. You may decide not to share what you’ve written with them, but it will give you the clarity to know how to say it.

Like my early experience in management, being unclear is not helpful. In fact, being unclear is unkind. When you can be clear with them, you are doing them a big favor. Don’t make them guess what you’re trying to say.

As I said earlier, tying your feedback to something that recently happened will help them understand what you mean. Giving that kind of clarity will help them see what you mean so that they can be able to put what you said into practice.

When you’ve shared the bad news with them, it’s important that they understand what you are sharing. Don’t just say it and then have them leave. Let them ask questions. Give them time to process it so they understand what you’re saying. So it will be clear to them.


3. Be calm.


It’s important for you when you are sharing bad news that you are calm. That will help them to hear what you need to say.

If it’s already going to be difficult for them to hear what you’re sharing, then they will already be in a highly emotional state. It’s important that you not aggravate that.

If you are nervous, it’s important that you calm yourself so that you can more ably help them process what you’re trying to tell them.

Alternatively, it’s not helpful to share this kind of news when you are angry. While it’s important to share the bad news after a recent event, don’t let it be too recent. If something just happened and you’re furious that they did it, it’s crucial for you to calm down first before you share this news.

If you’re calm, it’s more likely they will be calm when you tell them. And that will go better for both of you.


4. Be compassionate.


Let’s face it. No one wants to hear bad news. Whether it’s about how their personal performance needs to change. Or if their services are no longer required there.

It’s important to be compassionate in that scenario. Think about how you would feel if you were the one on the receiving end. How would you want to be told this information? How would they best process the information when it’s shared with them? Then proceed to tell it in a way that they would get the most benefit out of it.

Even if you have to tell them that they’re no longer employed there, think through how you can make this a teachable moment for them. Share with them what could put them on a better track wherever they find their next job.

And you never know if the shoe might be on the other foot someday. You want the people that you see on the way up your career ladder to remember you positively if you ever have to come down that career ladder. Being current, clear, calm, and compassionate with your bad news will help them in the short run—and it may even help you in the long run.


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