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Tackling the Elephant of Bad News

You have a member of staff and most of the time they are good, but there is one thing they do wrong. You don’t want to upset this member of staff, but this has been going for a while now and its getting annoying. Do you raise the subject and if so how? You may […]

February 24, 2024

You have a member of staff and most of the time they are good, but there is one thing they do wrong. You don’t want to upset this member of staff, but this has been going for a while now and its getting annoying. Do you raise the subject and if so how? You may not realise it but this is a classic case of the “elephant of bad news”. This Elephant will sit on your desk, getting in the way, taking up space and stopping you from getting on with your work. You have to deal with the Elephant and address the issue.

Being a manager is great, right up until the point you have deliver bad news. No scratch that, it’s wrong. Being a ‘good’ manager is tough. Being a ‘good’ manager, requires dedication and hard work. Any fool can be a manager (and I have met a few), but being a ‘good’ manager is really, really tough.
Managers have to have lots of key skills; they have to enable their team, set expectations, encourage, set an example and do lots more besides. You can have a look at my list of the “10 Characteristics to look for in a good Manager” on my website and see if you agree.

But no matter what sort of manager you are, delivering bad news is difficult. It requires preparation and a clear and well thought out approach. Rushed and poorly delivered messages can do great damage and not just to the relationship but in the worst cases will result in litigation and permanently damage to employee relations. It’s because of these risks that matters can be left, in the hope that it will get better on its own. Well, an employee doing a bad job is better than no employee at all, right? No, not cool, really bad. You know it in your bones because by deciding not to mention that ‘thing you do’ you have strayed from the path and out of the light.

Just as in life, at work we regret nothing more than the things we don’t say. When we stop being open and honest it changes us, it changes how we view others and how we interact with each other. None of this is good. It’s not good for us as individuals, it’s not good management and it’s downright bad for your business. We may do it to keep the peace or because of other commitments or even valid strategic reasons. But in the end it should be avoided. So take a deep breath, become that enabler of change and make it happen.

So how do you approach that thorny issue of tackling the, “elephant of bad news”? Well here is my checklist of how to approach any bad news message.

1. Respect
Just as a starting point treat people with respect. It’s often quoted in management books and you can even get posters for your office, with images of leaders looking wistfully into the middle distance with an awesome quote about respect. But let’s just keep it simple. Be clear in what you say, be honest and deliver the message in a caring manner. Consistently evidence shows us that people appreciate clear statements delivered with honesty. Not only does it assist the current situation, but others who see their colleagues treated with respect and will appreciate this value of respect being displayed.

2. Do not delay
The temptation is always not to mention the issue. Maybe it’s a capability issue (they just need more time) maybe they are a bit of a swearer (well, only sometimes) or is it something really personal (they don’t wash). Trust me they need to be told. If it’s something they are not doing right, they need guidance or training and if they are upsetting others equally they should be told. So, don’t delay, find some time and have that conversation.

3. Lead from the front
One of the best pieces of advice for all of us is, “be someone you want to be around.” The same advice should be given to all Managers; they have to be a pleasure to be around, a source of motivation and an example to others. Delivering bad news is difficult enough, but if the employee does not believe their manager meets the standards being set it only gets harder. Then becomes almost impossible if the meeting turns into one of those, “look, do as I say not as I do!” conversations.

Sometimes the one reason that this key meeting has not happened is because the managers is worried they don’t meet the standards being set. In this situation it’s the manager that needs to make changes, if they expect their team member to change.

4. Don’t deflect
You’re in charge, so take the responsibility. Don’t be the jobsworth, nobody wants to be led by a jobsworth, Jobsworth’s suck! Look your team member in the eye, explain the issue and why you are taking the action. You might be being directed to take action by those higher than you, but you need to identify with the action that you’re taking. Otherwise you risk appearing insincere and your instruction won’t carry much authority.

5. Do not keep it a surprise
Issues of poor performance or delivery should be explored and corrections made, but the employee should know they have come up short. If they have been blindly doing something wrong there may be a system or instruction problem, which would need corrected. Also the meeting should be formal, structured and private. Again, find the time to have the conversation and do it right.

6. Think about your audience
Firstly, there is the person in front of you. What’s the issue that your discussing, how are they going to react, what style and level of detail is going to work well with them and finally where do you want to get to, at the end of the meeting.

However, delivering bad news is not just about the person across the desk, you must also think of the wider audience. There are customers, clients, other managers and team members. All will directly or indirectly take a view on sanction or correction being issued and what this says about your management.

7. Do not hide information
Address matters square on. Be open and be straight. Sometimes when things go wrong there can be a desire to protect or conceal facts or down play the involvement of others. This approach should be resisted. Not only because the process should be about correcting behaviours and ways of working, but also because it does not work. If others have been at fault it will come out and then the concealment of facts or the involvement of certain individuals will look far worst.

8. Explain your reasoning
Explain the reasoning and justify your action. If it’s policy then explain the reason and the justification behind the policy. Identify personally with the policy and that it is right to do things in this way.

9. Look for the positive
No matter how black the circumstances are, always look for a positive. Human beings, love, hope and want to know that all is not lost. Even serious disciplinary sanctions can have a subtext of “Look, the rest of your work is good, but on this issue you have been a twit. Sort this out and don’t do it again.”

10. Be solution driven
The objective of addressing issues with an employee should be about improving performance, improving outcomes for the company and maintaining the relationship. So as the saying goes “keep your eyes on the prize.” With this in mind, remember to focus your handling, questioning and the outcomes of the process on achieving these objectives.

11. In writing
Always in writing, even if it’s just an email to follow up a meeting. Make sure you write something to note that there was a meeting, you set expectations and a timeframe if relevant. I have spent a fair amount of my time dealing with appeals or tribunals and it’s always easier to defend a course of action where there is some form of a record or audit trail. The alternative is an issue which is spoken about, but nothing is ever recorded. The individual may promise to amend their behaviour, but from time to time it still happens. Then, one day the manager loses patience and reacts, but worse because nothing is in writing there is a denial of ever being told about this issue. From here lines are drawn and positions become quickly entrenched. Disastrous and completely avoidable.

12. Follow through
So you have addressed the issue and followed up with a mail, you been a good manager, right? No, not yet. The best at anything always follow through on their actions. This means feedback and following up with the individual. But the good thing is that the bad news is out there, where it should be. We have done the ugly bit and we can focus on the positives of improving behaviours and conduct.

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