Forbes: How to communicate bad news effectively

Forbes: How to communicate bad news effectively

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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.

Recently, I was waiting to board a flight back to Washington, D.C., when the gate agent delivered a curious announcement: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The plane has arrived, but we need to wait a few minutes for the pilot to make a phone call. Please sit tight, and we will begin boarding as soon as possible.” Hours passed with no follow-up information or updates. Upon boarding three hours later, I half-expected the pilot to offer an apology or explanation. But after 20 minutes of silence, no such effort seemed to be forthcoming.

So imagine my surprise when, 30 minutes before landing, the pilot made an announcement, explaining how a major mechanical issue created the delay and he had to convince an off-duty contractor to come fix the problem. Breaking such anxiety-provoking news so casually was the last straw. This botched attempt at communication was neither helpful nor reassuring.

Once on land, I reflected on how too little or too much information can do more harm than good in times of crisis. Life brings terrible news, and leadership calls for calmly delivering it while sharing only the most vital information. I know from decades of experience that there’s a delicate balance between transparency and oversharing when informing others of difficult circumstances.

Place Your Oxygen Mask On First

Successfully navigating during the COVID pandemic drove home the importance of always prioritizing self-care. This is especially imperative for business leaders responsible for delivering difficult news and sharing vital company updates.

The emotional, psychological and physical demands of leading in times of crisis are significant. When things start to unravel and the situation is far from ideal, people look to leaders for physical cues of reassurance and confidence. But keeping everyone in the loop can be very taxing on one’s personal reserves. Therefore, it’s important to take the time to replenish your mind, body and soul.

Prioritize self-care basics to be a leader who breathes deeply, moves with energy and maintains emotional stability even through the most challenging news. For example, put non-negotiable self-care activities on your calendar or adopt an offline policy so you can top up your reserves when you’re not working. This will ensure that you have the mental resources to keep your teams informed.

Keep Your Communications Succinct

Sharing bad news requires direct, succinct communication, especially when the information may provoke anxiety or lead to a flurry of follow-up questions. When COVID-19 turned the world upside down, leaders everywhere were under exorbitant pressure to make critical decisions and communicate complex matters for their companies and organizations — often in mere minutes. Keeping employees focused and functional during such a sustained crisis is no easy feat.

Delivering difficult news can be challenging, even in stable times. While putting off critical decisions in the short-term may be tempting, kicking the can down the road is pointless. Hard decisions just grow more complicated the longer you wait.

Recently, my organization faced a very complicated, urgent technological problem beyond our control. I turned to my board and explained that I had experts assessing the situation, and we were working diligently to find a resolution. I then gathered my employees and insisted everyone focus on one priority: finding a solution to the problem. After informing my board and employees of the situation, I shared the difficult news with our community via a straightforward, informative email.

Offering enough details to get everyone on board without oversharing was paramount to succeeding in our shared mission. It helped avoid unnecessary worry or confusion while letting everyone know the most important aspects.

Practice Empathy For Best Outcomes

Emotional intelligence is key when delivering bad news. Challenging circumstances can bring heightened tension, so communicating with empathy is a great way to show consideration and genuine care for your teams. A few carefully chosen words can go a long way to prepare everyone for what’s to come.

The conversation will almost certainly lead to questions and heightened emotions, so offer everyone a moment to gather their thoughts and internalize the news. As they react, listen with understanding and be transparent when answering questions. Communicate the anticipated next steps, and if the conversation gets tense, be sure to bring everyone’s focus back to finding a solution. If circular conversations persist, firmly restate your position before moving on to other business matters.

Every complex message successfully delivered to your teams builds grit, empathy and understanding. When you are boldly decisive and lead by example, your organization will benefit greatly.