Delivering bad news - 5 important steps
2. April 2013
It is a stressful task to inform a team member that he or she is going to lose the job. To dismiss a team member is probably the toughest and the most difficult thing managers ever must do. It is never easy, and it does never become easier. The only thing to make it easier is to ensure that no one should ever be surprised when they get dismissed or are asked to leave. As a manager, you need to do what is right.
Prepare yourself for delivering bad news. In this article, I introduce five steps that will make you better prepared for the day you need to dismiss a team member. It is not the question if you have to do it; it is about when you have to do.
Step 1 - Decide to deliver the bad news, and stick to your decision. Take ownership of your decision. At the delivery stage you cannot say, "Well, I'm here as the person to give you the official message. I'm only the messenger." That would be cowardice.
Step 2 - Be honest with yourself about the role you personally play in the outcome. This is critical because, if you play a direct role, i.e. you never communicated about the team member performing poorly on time, you need to be straight with yourself about that. If you are not, you will end up feeling guilty and weird, and that will come across negatively. You need to be able to control yourself when breaking the news. You cannot be in an emotional state.
Step 3 - Be empathetic. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. If the receiver is going to take the news badly, try your best to understand what the person stands to lose as a result of what you are going to tell him or her. The person may react with strong emotions, and you must be ready to acknowledge these emotions. However, you cannot predict another person's reactions. Whatever the reaction, you cannot let emotions interfere with your message. If you need to dismiss a person, you cannot change your mind because the person is crying.
Recommendation: Acknowledge the person's distress. Be prepared to say calmly: "I'm making you cry. This must be awful for you."
Step 4 - Plan for the meeting itself. Consider all the ways you can make the situation right.
- Be familiar with the circumstances leading to the need of breaking bad news. If the reason is for instance a lay-off, be familiar with the process that has been followed, including how the decision was made in selecting who loses the job.
- Arrange a face-to-face meeting irrespective of where you are and the individual is located. There are only very few exceptions when a conference call is accepted, and in those situations you need to ensure that another person from the company accompanies the individual. The individual needs to be able to face someone, not only to hear a voice.
- Together with your human resources partner prepare a script as your guide. This will ensure you that you convey all necessary information to the team member. Keep it simple.
- Take the time necessary to make proper arrangements for the meeting. Select a place where you can have privacy. Do not use your office. Choose a neutral place in the office building. You may feel more confident in your office, but this is not about you. Remember to plan for interrupted time - your personal assistant cannot break the meeting with a highly important message.
- Recommendation: Make a mental or written note about the following. The second you have informed your team member about poor performance or him or her being dismissed, there is not too much more your team member will hear.
Step 5 - Deliver the bad news. Now and only now, you are ready to break the news in real time. If you did the initial four steps right, your emotional state will be clear.
- Be transparent and direct. Do not engage in small talk but get to the point. Have the courage to inform in a straightforward way. People need respect.
- Watch your language carefully. If you try to wrap the news in soft language or sugarcoat it to lessen the impact, the receiver may not understand the seriousness of the message.
- Do not make comments, even if well-intended, that compromise the message.
- You do not need to apologize. Stay with the script and reamin calm.
- Once you have delivered the crucial part of the message, pause. Stay silent although you may feel the urge to say something. If the person is in shock, he or she simply needs time to recover.
- Allow the person to go through prepared paperwork (termination letter or the like), if necessary. At this stage the scope of news has reached the part of the brain that recognizes what has happened.
- A denial stage may set in, and therefore ascertain that the person understands that the decision is final and non-negotiable.
- You will know when the reaction stage occurs. Do not become defensive, argumentative or confrontational. If you have done a good job so far, the anger or disappointment of the person is not directed against you personally. Accept and understand the reaction as a defense mechanism.
- Listen to the person with your whole body. Listening does not mean that you agree with the person.
- Allow your human resources partner to take over the meeting. You stay present though. The change in who leads the meeting can be very helpful because it is a break for all parties.
Directly after the meeting, you will most likely be exhausted. Allow that to happen. Thereafter you need to move on. Observe what is going on in the team or the company. Dismissing a team member will have consequences for those who are left in the team or company. How you manage the aftermath is as important as the preparation for the meeting itself.
For more detailed advice, please contact me here.
- Camilla Lohrum
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