How to deliver bad news, but still provide hope

Virtually every company or organization at some point has news that can take the steam out of its sails. Be it layoffs, a sales or earnings shortfall, or the loss of a big customer, the job of leadership is to get the word out quickly in a straightforward full-disclosure fashion, before the employees and management team hear about it elsewhere.

It’s never fun, nor should it be, but conveying bad tidings must be accompanied with a road map of what will be done to stem the tide and a plan to use the negative as a rallying call, evoking confidence and hope for the future.

In the perennial favorite Walt Disney movie “Mary Poppins” there’s an uplifting song that proclaims, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Herein lies the answer that makes unpleasant news, when delivered with a bit of sweetness, at least tolerable and, if done right, sometimes even energizing.

There is very little value for a leader to tell the troops that the situation is dire, which it certainly could be, without pointing everyone in a direction to ameliorate the problems or even solve them completely. Most people can accept a setback if given a modicum of hope, accompanied by a course of action that outlines what role each person or group within the organization must play to improve and succeed.

The first step in correcting a wayward course is to identify what went wrong and why. If the reasons why are not known at the time, the bearer of bad news must disseminate what transpired and spell out what is being done to unearth the causes and launch solutions. Without the sugar component in the message, those receiving it will be left rudderless, which can fuel further deterioration and the unintended consequence of good people abandoning ship or, worse, staying and treading water.

In an even worse scenario, employees may start to operate, either consciously or subconsciously, in a defensive mode; instead of initiating bold changes and improvements, they function in a “do harm” mode that stifles progress and innovation.

In business, sports and just about everything else, most people enjoy a challenge. For some, the bigger the challenge the greater the enthusiasm generated to solve it. Be careful, however, of overpromising, using unabashed hyperbole or being too vague or too negative. Treat your audience as grown-ups; don’t talk down to them; be factual and succinct, yet guardedly optimistic. This will draw them into becoming a part of the solution. Intertwine your message with the probable payoff and illustrate how the company will learn from the negative situation to build a more solid foundation on which to grow.

A team will typically accept formidable objectives when they know that everyone is in it together and they’re given hope and guidance. Pretending that bad news is not that bad usually leads to even bigger troubles.

As Mary Poppins also reminds us, “in every job that must be done there is an element of fun.” And, that spoonful of sugar sure makes the medicine of bad news go down more easily.

Visit Michael Feuer’s new website to learn more about his columns, watch videos and purchase his books “The Benevolent Dictator” and “Tips From The Top.”