The worst has happened, and you have to tell your team.
And once you deliver bad news you have to help employees deal with it.
It’s one of the most difficult situations leaders face. But it’s also your greatest opportunity to become a legendary, empathetic leader.
From business failures or layoffs to personal tragedies or workplace injuries, there’s no shortage of bad news to share at work. Couple that with the intense stuff we’ve all experienced in the past two years, and it can weigh heavy on people.
In fact, most people are stressed enough over external factors – such as inflation, turmoil and illness – that they’ve put themselves in “survival mode” at work, according to research from the American Psychological Association.
By the time they come to work, they’re already stressed: Half are burned out and a third just aren’t happy, according to the Employee Stress Check 2022 Report from Talkspace and The Harris Poll.
“Americans are under extraordinary stress at work and looking for additional support from employers and specifically, managers,” says Dr. Varun Choudhary, MD, MA, DFAPA, Chief Medical Officer of Talkspace.
Good leaders can lighten the emotional load with tact and empathy. And that can help employees get through difficult times and continue to thrive at work.
Here are five strategies to deliver bad news and help your employees through difficult or stressful times:
When you don’t want to upset people, you might be tempted to sugarcoat terrible news. Or you might pretend it’s not as bad as it really is.
But you can’t play the “business-as-usual” card with employees.
You’ll create a safer environment for them to react naturally, and possibly stand up to the task with greater strength, if you address the situation just as it is: bad news.
Whether you need to talk about local, social events (for instance, how businesses in the Minneapolis area might have addressed the George Floyd killing and riots) or internal, business-related situations (for instance, major, across-the-board layoffs), communicate like a human with a heart.
You might say:
- “The downsizing decision is difficult and I fear how it will impact everyone here. While we don’t have the answers to all the questions yet, here’s what I know we can do now,” or
- “I saw the news, too, and I felt sad. It can be heartbreaking and difficult for all of us to process, and it’s particularly painful for colleagues close to it. Here is how we can support you.”
Harvard Business School researchers Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien say the last sentence is most critical because it paves the way forward – a way to start recovering.
Embrace actionable feedback
This won’t happen in many bad news decisions. But, when possible, talk about bad news at a point when employees can impact what happens. You might be able to engage them in the problem-solving process.
For instance, when employees are given enough time before budget cutbacks that will likely lead to layoffs, they might be able to identify other ways to cut costs.
And if you’re addressing bad news in society, they might rally to come up with ways to help people affected – rather than wallow in sadness or anger. If the boss and the company support their efforts, that will likely positively impact morale at a time it should be taking a blow.
Give safe spaces (for all reactions)
If employees can’t impact the situation that’s caused the bad news – say, the layoffs are unavoidable or a natural disaster has occurred – give them safe spaces to express their feelings and hopefully start to heal.
What’s most important is realizing that not all employees will feel the same or have the same degree of need for a “safe space” to react. Your most stoic employees may not care about the news. On the other hand, some people who are affected most by bad news – regardless of whether it’s internal or external – may need a lot of space.
Give optional time and space for people who want to get together to share emotions. Even better, give them the opportunity to have a trained facilitator to loosely guide the conversation. Or, maybe give Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) the reins: Invite them to host conversations within their groups and offer counselors or facilitators to help guide the group with understanding.
Bad news is a major distraction. It’s not an excuse to bug out on work. But it will have a legitimate effect on employee productivity and quality.
Good leaders can’t ignore that.
The business researchers suggest you let up a little. That doesn’t mean you need to lower standards. To help employees get over the hump, re-prioritize. It’ll show you care about them while still recognizing business needs.
Once the shock has passed, and employees have had initial opportunities to absorb bad news and react to it, get them involved in setting new priorities. Ask them what work can be paused – or even eliminated entirely – while you rebound.
You’ll also want to agree to timelines for when you’ll return to the next normal.
Start to move forward
Remember, there’s no need to be a hero in all this. Leaders don’t need to mask their emotions entirely. Instead, admit your anguish. And don’t claim everything will be right again. Admit you want change for the better.
Then help your employees move forward after hearing and living the bad news.
One way: Encourage everyone to channel frustration or anger toward improving. There will likely be some unwanted lingering effects – perhaps outbursts, reprised sadness and melancholy for times before the bad news situation.
When those happen, you might ask employees how they can turn that into a positive. Is there a need for a new ERG? A volunteering opportunity? A teambuilding event? A project that can help you become more inclusive and equitable? A way to create more belonging?
Talk to your employees. The options to turn bad into good are endless.