What NOT to do when communicating difficult messages to employees
1. Giving news without empathy
The ability to humanize employees is an important soft skill that managers must hone. “Employees are not just a means to an end or a path to productivity; they are human beings worthy of respect and individual attention,” said Kim Crowder, an expert on diversity, equality, Inclusion and Anti-Racism (DEIA) and founder of Kim Crowder Consulting, previously told Well + Good.
Part of humanizing employees is bringing plenty of empathy to every difficult conversation. “Let people know that you are providing this information to them that you understand how it might make them feel and that you are there to support them in taking action,” AlTai said. “Leading with compassionate empathy allows recipients to feel that they are not alone in this and have the support of the group or community around them.”
While sometimes done with good intentions to help “mild the blow,” indirect communication or serving a compliment sandwich is not an effective way to deliver difficult information. Instead, AlTai says it further undermines the recipient’s psychological safety. Also, if they find out later that you’re not being completely honest, they may not be able to fully trust you in the future. So make sure you’re clear and direct in these conversations.
3. Lack of context and specificity
Another key element of delivering tough news to employees is sharing context, providing insights into how decisions are made. “Knowing our background builds our trust and sense of fairness,” says AlTai. “When we don’t have a platform or a lot of transparency, we can tell our own stories, and things can start to feel unfair or unfair.” Specificity is also important, AlTai adds, especially when giving feedback. “If we don’t share the exact situation, behavior or impact, it is almost impossible to improve,” she said. “Being too general can also sound evasive and ambiguous, casting doubt on trust and sincerity.”
4. No personal liability
AlTai also recommends acknowledging the role you may have played and being responsible for. “When we deliver challenging news about the other person, we are likely not looking at the whole situation,” she explains. “It’s likely that you played some role, big or small, and owning your role in the incident invites the recipient into a more productive, less one-sided conversation.”
5. Make it about yourself
That said, while it’s important to take responsibility, AlTai says it’s important that you don’t focus the conversation on yourself when delivering news. You may have had some time to process the information before giving it out, but it’s completely new to the recipient and they deserve time to process. “Doing that about themselves doesn’t allow them to express their feelings or experiences,” she said. “They may also feel compelled to support your feelings, which puts them in an unfair situation.”
6. Unbelieve and run
AlTai acknowledges that delivering bad news to employees is not easy, and employers and managers may feel the urge to drop the information and exit the conversation quickly. However, doing so is unkind and lacks empathy. Instead, make sure you sign up with them. “Ask open-ended questions about their experience to show them that you’re here to help them process,” she says.
7. Don’t discuss next steps
“After we shared the tough news in a specific and empathetic way and worked on the content together, we could start talking about how we’re moving forward,” AlTai said. After all, feedback without subsequent action is meaningless. Taking the time to discuss future actions or behaviors that need to change is what ultimately makes progress, making it an essential step in any difficult conversation.