The ability to deliver difficult news with poise, compassion, and professionalism is a leadership skill that people don’t talk about much. Yet it’s incredibly important.

How you guide your team during tough times shows what caliber leader you are.

Sometimes bad things happen. Projects are canceled, layoffs are on the horizon, or perhaps a company division is being shuttered. Sometimes an employee or prized client dies unexpectedly or becomes embroiled in a criminal matter. And as a leader, it’s up to you to deliver the news to your team.

Intelligent Leadership, as I discuss in my books, often demands first stepping back and asking yourself a few key questions. With bad news, that first question should be, “How would I want someone to break this news to me?” You certainly wouldn’t want momentous news delivered by email. Fortunately, there are ways to talk about difficult topics in person so that you deliver solid information, preserve everyone’s dignity, and take the first steps toward a workable solution. Here’s how.

Don’t Wait Too Long to Speak with Your Team

Even if no one has mentioned the bad news, people have ways of picking up bits and pieces. And often they pick up just enough to fuel rumors. Wait until you have verifiable facts to present, but beyond that, don’t wait longer than you have to. People are hungry for real information, and if they don’t get it, they’re more likely to spin innuendo and rumor into wildly inaccurate stories you’ll have to dispel. Get the facts, verify them, and then call your team meeting.

Be Honest, Transparent, and Accountable

Never lie about bad news. If 10 people will definitely be laid off, don’t say that “layoffs are possible.” As an Intelligent Leader, you are also considered a trustworthy source of key information, so it’s essential that you be perfectly honest and transparent. There may be details that you cannot share for legal reasons but share what you can in a straightforward manner.

Honesty and transparency are mandatory for giving bad news while retaining your team’s trust.

And if you have some responsibility for what happened, own it. If your company will not have a booth at a major trade expo because you dropped the ball and didn’t register in time, don’t obfuscate or pass the buck. People may be angry or disappointed, but they will respect you for holding yourself accountable.

Keep Your Tone Appropriate

Now is not the time to crack jokes or make light of things. Deliver difficult news in a tone that is appropriate to the situation, particularly if a colleague or leader has died. There will be time for lightness and humor later, once people have dealt with the situation and healed from it. There is no point in trying to make unpleasant or sad news better by making light of the situation.

Avoid Behaving in Ways That Could Be Perceived as Callous

This is a case where a leader’s self-awareness is critically important. Be aware of people’s moods and of the weight of bad news and behave appropriately. If half your team is being laid off due to budget cuts, don’t fly first class or show everyone pictures of your new car, for example.

Self-awareness allows you to “read the room,” which is especially important in the aftermath of bad news. Keeping the respect of your team requires that you attune your behavior to the circumstances, even if you had no hand in creating them.

Executive coaching doesn’t always cover the art of delivering bad news, but perhaps it should. You’re a leader in both good times and bad, and how you handle yourself can either increase trust and respect or tear it down. At some point, almost every leader will be in the position of breaking the bad news to people they genuinely care about. Practicing good self-awareness and preparing yourself for that eventuality can ensure that your leadership stays strong even when your team has to accept a harsh blow.


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