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Good ways to communicate bad news

Badly handled change communications can result in anything from resentment to outright hostility and everything in between, but at the root of it in most cases is fear. By understanding this, an organisation can take into consideration in its change strategies. There is often no easy way to communicate bad news to an employee, so here we share our top tips managing the situation:

  • Don't ever spring nasty surprises or 'done deals' on staff such as firings or reasons they need to change via email. It shows a total lack of respect and sends the message to other workers that they won't matter either when the time comes.
  • If change must come, don't sit on it for long. The rumour mill is a powerful demotivator and might lead some people to unnecessarily jump ship before they are notified officially of what's to come.
  • Be real. Give staff the facts of what the changes will mean from the get go. If you don't, they'll find out some other way and that will look really bad on the organisation.
  • Back up why the change is needed, spell it out in detail and justify it. For instance in a real-life example, a boss told his staff during a crisis that they had to have a pay cut. He laid out sales and costs figures, how much he was putting into the business from his own pocket, and made it clear that it was a case of shut up shop or keep everyone on at lower wages. The decision was theirs. Knowing it was a sector-wide problem, they knew he wasn't trying to pull a fast one.
  • Try to put across the positives. In the example above, although the news was tragic for staff, no one was to be laid off, which made everyone feel valued. It meant the business could carry on and staff understood that in this case a lower income was better than none at all. It also created a sense of everyone being in it together, that the business was worth saving moving forward and that things might pick up.
  • Lay out solutions or plans to resolve whatever the issue was that led to the changes and enlist staff to help make that happen. In times of bad news, people need hope and they need their leaders to bring them not just problems but solutions.
  • Keep staff informed of ongoing situations, how the changes are working, or not, for the improvement of the situation. Ignoring this aspect will just send the message that you cared about them when you needed something from them but are no longer interested once the changes were implemented with their help.

What organisations need to understand today is that change is constant and this should be communicated to staff across the board, not in a way that says 'Here's what Lao Tzu says, now go away and meditate on the nature of reality and deal with these changes', but in demonstrating that change can be a positive thing for an organisation.

On the level of the individual it can bring character growth, new skills and opportunities, and even in cases where people have been laid off, thousands will say down the line that is has led them to better things and happier more balanced lives. Even in negative change circumstances, people adapt because to adapt is to survive and that's the strongest instinct we have.

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