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Communicating bad or challenging news

May 4, 2021

Delivering bad, difficult, or unexpected news to employees is never fun. It makes sense that many avoid it wherever possible. But, for those in leadership positions, communicating change and having difficult conversations is a core part of the job and it’s worth facing into it.

There are a few simple steps to getting it right.

Don’t be late, but give it time

The only thing worse than receiving bad news is receiving it late, and the same goes for learning about change. Equally, if the information is delivered in a rush, an individual doesn’t have the time to prepare, process or respond and will inevitably react badly or misunderstand.

Clarity and directness are the best approach, as employees want honest communication that demonstrates a respect for them as adults. This is as true for company-wide information as it is for individual feedback or news.

Good leaders don’t wait for things to get worse before communicating about a problem or a change. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is enjoying the highest approval ratings in a century as a result of her immediate, no-nonsense approach to the recent pandemic.

In any size of business, news of major change or issues is very hard to contain for any length of time. Allowing time to pass while rumours and conjecture spread can be more damaging than the issue itself, and hard to recover from. By holding off, you could damage the leadership’s reputation and miss out on the chance to find support for a solution.

Deliver bad or controversial news as soon as is possible for your business. Ripple’s publishing features allow you to craft your message quickly and effectively, selecting the most appropriate channels for delivery – including imbedded video messaging, or even in-message polls to gauge reactions.

Prepare yourself

Make a plan. While you should communicate sooner rather than later, it’s not a good idea to go into a tricky communication campaign without planning. Before launching your communication decide what you want to say, how you want to say it, who you want to deliver it to (in what order), and how you’re going to respond to any questions. Pick the right time to land bad news (first thing Monday and last thing Friday are usually best avoided) and ensure you have the time and capacity manage the inevitable fall out afterwards.

Ask yourself:

  • What do we need to achieve with this communication?
  • How do we want people to feel?
  • How can we create buy-in by communicating what is in it for them?
  • How might they respond?
  • How can we tackle their questions?

Starting your communication with clear goals makes it easier to stay on track and on-message as the conversation develops. Ensure you present the background to the news to help teams understand, eliminate unnecessary confusion, and open the dialogue.

Ripple helps you to plan your communications with visual planning tools that show you exactly when and how your messaging will land. You can make changes easily by dragging and dropping content  from on day to another, or by changing the target audience.

Listen

Don’t try and answer every possible question with your first communication. By keeping your messaging simple you will inevitably be leaving out detail. But making it clear to employees that they can ask questions, and providing them a forum to do so, shows that you are listening and respect their thoughts and feelings.

Productive listening is a key tenet of employee engagement and essential to ride the course of a negative communication. Polls can give you a quick snapshot of reactions and allow you to target follow ups with the people or subjects that feature highest. Give individuals forums to communicate with each other and to you, both formally and informally.

If you’ve prepared for the conversation, you should be able to answer any questions honestly, as well as processing suggestions and fielding solutions.

Don’t be tempted to brush off dissenting opinions. Consider that you may not have crafted your message clearly, but also remember that the decision or approach that you have communicated is unlikely to be popular with everybody – and you are going to have to accept that.

Continue the conversation

Following up with consistent updates after bad news is vital, particularly if your messaging includes promises or commitments in the future.

Regular communication is a major factor in a transformation’s success and a McKinsey report states that getting it right has the most significant impact in enterprise-wide transformations where ‘company-wide change efforts are 12.4x more likely to be successful when senior managers communicate continually’.

Ripple campaigns can be tracked through with unique insights that sit right in the tool itself, pulling back the commentary from your M365 platform and allowing you to analyse sentiment and continually judge the engagement levels of a campaign.

Communicating bad news is always hard, and particularly tricky to manage when you are landing a company-wide announcement. But, with good planning and preparation and a willingness to listen you can actually gain traction from a well-executed communication campaign – however challenging the subject matter.