For most of us, we’ve been on the receiving end of one (or more) of the following statements. If you’re the one who is delivering bad news to your employees, however, your approach needs to have five key elements for the conversation to go well.
“You haven’t met your goals again.”
“We decided to promote someone else instead.”
“Your behavior is not acceptable.”
They’re all tough statements, especially when you’re delivering the message to someone you care about and like. Of course, sometimes we get the satisfaction of unloading someone who has been causing problems and the situation has reached its limit, but that’s not what this is about. This is about having a tough conversation with someone you like –one that can no longer be avoided and will be painful for both of you.
Here are five helpful techniques to make having a difficult conversation easier, not only for you but also for the recipient.
Frame the outcome as a win-win
This sounds extreme, but it really isn’t. For any given situation there is relief in knowing the unknown. A person who hasn’t been meeting his or her goals, and doesn’t know it, can’t possibly adjust unless you have that conversation to expose the truth. In the same vein, someone who isn’t aware of a bad habit or inappropriate behavior has a blind spot. Awareness creates an environment of transparency, which allows for adjustment and improvement.
Adjust the power dynamic
There is stress in delivering bad news to your employees, especially something as difficult as a missed promotion, a layoff or termination. Someone you thought you knew well may surprise you with an uncharacteristic outburst. Your best defense is to be prepared for the likelihood that this could happen and try to remember that it isn’t about you. Being prepared with a calm demeanor and the ability to respond to an outburst, rather than react, allows you to keep the power in this difficult dynamic while also keeping your composure. You might want to use a standard response like, “I know this is difficult, but if we can stay on topic you’ll see that I have some effective solutions that will reduce the chances of this happening again.”
Remember who’s in charge
This can happen if you’re new to the position or this is the first time you’ve been tasked with a heavy responsibility. The conversation can turn quickly, especially with a recipient who is older or more experienced. The potential for the other person to ask a lot of questions or deflect your feedback is high. It’s not uncommon to suddenly feel like you’re on the defensive for delivering much needed feedback. For situations like this, it helps to have a third person in the room, but if that’s not an option, make sure you have a standard response ready, such as, “All the answers to your questions will be in the summary I email to you after our meeting.” Not only does this allow you to steer away from details that could drag the session longer than necessary, it gives you a great opportunity to send your overall feedback in writing. Having a paper trail of your conversation is also an added bonus.
Don’t show up empty-handed
Supporting documentation often helps you structure the conversation and allows you to stay on point. It works for pretty much every difficult conversation, including the dreaded termination. Once you have delivered the bad news, you now have an outline of materials to review that will help the recipient move away from the shock of the message, towards helpful next steps and action items.
Find the positive
If you’re giving tough feedback for someone you truly like and want to see succeed, then by all means let him or her know that. If part of your plan for delivering tough feedback is to help your colleague grow and thrive, then share that message and make sure you have a plan in place to measure the positive changes taking place in the agreed upon timeframe. Positive reinforcement and strengths-based development have the capacity to move people out of frustrating situations while allowing them to improve in a way that works best for them.
We all have to deal with difficult conversations. What makes a successful leader better at delivering bad news to employees is the ability to own the conversation, to remain present while listening to the reaction, and to stay in control of the dynamic, all while ensuring that the recipient feels respected and heard during a very vulnerable moment. It’s one of the most important skills a new leader can have.