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How to Deliver Bad News

By |June 10, 2024

Few tasks in leadership are as daunting as delivering bad news. Whether it’s informing an employee about job termination or a team about budget cuts, the way we convey these messages can significantly affect morale and outcomes. Delivering bad news is never pleasant.  But waiting to deliver it often makes it worse.  As former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell wisely noted, "Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age."

Why is delivering bad news difficult?

There are numerous reasons why we shy away from delivering bad news. Maybe we fear we may hurt their feelings, or perhaps we are worried they may take it personally or twist our words to make us the bad guy. While these might be true, it usually comes down to one thing: it makes us uncomfortable. As humans, go out of our way to avoid discomfort.  Not engaging in conversations that give rise to discomfort is the easiest way to avoid it.  But, bad news is not the end of the story. It can be an opportunity for growth and resilience. Every cloud of bad news carries a silver lining of hidden opportunities.

So how can we effectively deliver bad news?

A key to improving our ability to deliver bad news is preparation. We need to remember the person we are delivering the bad news to is not our adversary; the situation is. The best way to prepare is to use r the tried and true C.A.V.I.AA.R.™ method:

- Curiosity: Approach the conversation with a mindset of discovery. Ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from this interaction?’ Assume you have something to learn.

- Accept: Understand that the person receiving the news might react emotionally - you will be attacked at some point during the conversation. Prepare yourself for this possibility and remain calm.  This, along with curiosity, are the keys to your not responding negatively to a trigger.

- Vent: Talk through the issue with a trusted confidant beforehand to release any pent-up emotions. If you don’t vent before the conversation, your feelings are more likely to show up in the conversation.

- Identify: Determine your counterpart’s negotiation style—are they more of an Analyst, Assertive, or Accommodator? This knowledge will guide your approach.

- Accusation Audit: Anticipate and address the negative reactions your counterpart might have. Statements like, "You might think I’m being unfair," help to defuse tension.

When you prepare, physically write down a minimum of 6-8 accusation audits as well as a handful of “what” and “how” thought-shaping questions. These will become valuable to reflect upon as you move through the conversation.

- Remember: Keep in mind that your counterpart is not the adversary; the situation is. 

Real World Application

I recently used C.A.V.I.AA.R.™ when I had to meet with an employee to deliver bad news; I was removing them as a supervisor from a coveted specialized assignment. They would no longer supervise the SWAT Team. I had made numerous coaching and mentoring attempts with this supervisor, but he remained toxic with his direct reports, using his supervisory position to belittle and demean the officers under his command. Additionally, this supervisor overly identified with this specialized assignment.  It became a part of his actual identity; demonstrating machismo and brawn with little regard for others. He was no longer effective as the SWAT supervisor, and my attempts to help him with his shortcomings failed.

Though I used each of the C.A.V.I.AA.R.™ points, the most helpful was the Accusation Audits, which I had actually written out. When the supervisor came into my office, I thanked him for meeting me and then immediately launched into the Accusation Audits, pausing several seconds after each one before delivering the next so they could each sink in and be impactful. I tried to make each Accusation Audit more visceral than the previous:

- “You might think I have no regard for you as a supervisor.”

- “You’re probably going to think I’m the worst boss you’ve ever worked for.”

- “You might want to tear my lungs out when you hear what I have to say.”

Before I could continue, likely because each Accusation Audit became stronger than the previous, the supervisor “anchored” high and spontaneously blurted out, “Am I being fired?” I had proactively addressed his negative thoughts so that my news of his reassignment had much less sting than his own perception of being terminated.

After delivering the bad news and explaining my reasons, I concentrated on collaborating with the Sergeant to establish a vision for success in his next role. This was done through a series of Calibrated Questions. These thought-shaping questions usually begin with “What” or “How” and are designed to provoke thought or problem-solving.

- “What do you think the next steps should be?”

- “How do you envision we move forward?”

 In this specific conversation, the question was:   “What can I do to help you be more successful in your next assignment?”  It was packaged in a manner in which the sergeant could come up with solutions.  Solutions produced by the counterpart are more likely to be successful because they are basically their ideas.

The Sergeant began providing helpful feedback on what I could assist him with his desire to improve. Ultimately, he showed marked improvement in his next assignment.

“More information is always better than less. When people know the reason things are happening, even if it's bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly. Keeping people in the dark only serves to stir negative emotions.” - Simon Sinek

Delivering bad news understandably makes us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it will be required of all of us either in business, leadership, parenting, or a variety of other circumstances.