How to Break Bad News

Whether the change is big or small, you can bring people through it with a minimum of complaining and your credibility intact
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

My husband ate a lot of hot dogs growing up. It was his mother’s go-to dinner and she always put mayonnaise on the hot dog buns. My husband hated mayonnaise as a child. He ate it, because he assumed that it was healthy. Why else would anyone eat something so disgusting?

And then one golden day he discovered the truth–mayonnaise was not healthy. He told his mother that he never wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog ever again. She agreed to his request. And then the next time they had hot dogs for dinner, and there was mayonnaise on his hot dog. When questioned about this unreasonable turn of events, the elder Mrs. Douglas said “Well there isn’t that much.”

This probably wasn’t the only time that my mother in law forgot to do something for her opinionated son. However this is the instance he remembers–and he will never let her live it down. I heard this story again last night, and it occurred to me this morning that those of us in business can learn how to break bad news from the story of the hot dogs.

Learn the Lesson of the Hot Dogs

Photo by Victoria Shes on Unsplash

To put this family situation into business terms, leadership introduced an item that bothered the line staff. Staff complained, and leadership promised to fix it. Then they forgot, and excused themselves by saying that it wasn’t that big of a problem to begin with.

Most of our business problems have nothing to do with hot dogs (unless you work for a hot dog company) but many of us have run into similar situations. Perhaps IT has introduced two factor authentication or a VPN portal to your computer systems. Perhaps the payroll department now requires all payroll approvals to happen on Mondays, even on holidays, no exceptions.

Unless you own your own business, (and sometimes even then) you have probably had someone tell you that you have to do a new thing that takes more time than the old thing you used to do. If you own a process or manage people, you may also have to break the news about the new thing to the people around you.

For the purposes of this discussion we will assume that the company must implement the change. We will also assume that leadership carefully weighed all possible pros and cons before moving forward with it. Even taking these assumptions into account, there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate bad news–and deal with the fall out.

Your Audience May Not Have a Problem

Kitten pictures are cute, but don’t send them instead of an explanation for a coming change. Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Unless you know for sure that everyone in the company hates the old system, assume that some people enjoy using it. Of the people who didn’t enjoy using it, there is a subset that can perform the clunky process without thinking about it.

These folks don’t recognize that there’s a problem to solve. They will need to hear why their system or process has to change. Saying something like ‘We need to change our payroll day to align with the parent company’ may not fill anyone with joy, but your employees will appreciate knowing the actual answer.

This approach is much better than trying to get people excited about your solution to a problem they don’t have. For instance (and apologies in advance to all graphic designers) when I get an email announcing the ‘new look and feel’ coming to my favorite website, it fills me with dread. I assume this means someone is going to break (or take away) my favorite features. At the very least I’ll have to spend extra time learning where all the buttons went. The more cheerful your email, the more I assume this is going to hurt.

Watch Your Tone

Take your time crafting your message. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most people hate delivering bad news. It’s no fun telling people things that will make them feel bad. It’s even less fun listening to people complain about it. Most of us think we’re pretty good at handling change. The sad fact is that we’re all very good at handling change so long as no one changes the things we care about. It’s human nature.

You can’t eliminate the human tendency to complain, but you can lower the number of people who feel the need to do so if you adopt the right tone. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to tell people that something is changing.

Don’t tell people that the change is ‘no big deal.’

Let them come to that conclusion for themselves. Some changes create unforeseen consequences, and you don’t want to lose your credibility as a trusted source of information. This is especially true in larger companies, where it’s impossible to truly understand the way work flows through different departments.

For example, my work portal signs me out of the system every twenty minutes or so. This isn’t a big deal when I’m composing an email or working on a google doc because the computer saves my work. It’s a very large annoyance when I’m using a certain system that has to query a database several times over the course of a few minutes. In some cases, I have spent time adjusting numbers and fields, only to have my work erased when the system logs me out.

I don’t have polite things to say when this happens.

Assume you are dropping this change into a complex system.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

When you go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, your pharmacist asks for a list of other medications you may be taking. This is to make sure that the prescription meant to help you doesn’t kill you when it interacts with the other drugs in your system.

When you change a work process or system, that change isn’t happening in isolation. You or your colleague may not die because of a harmful interaction between two changes, but a small change can lead to a large amount of frustration. Let’s go back to the system that signs me out every twenty minutes. I interact with this system on a computer that freezes up every time I change tabs or try to load data rich documents. Often, when I get logged out of my portal, my computer will lock up. This is also a very busy time of the year at my job, and it’s harder to work faster when my entire computer seizes.

In this case, I have a new computer wending it’s way to my home office. Relief is coming. I may have to learn to live with the twenty minute sign out, but I’ll do it on a computer that doesn’t freeze up if I look at it funny. Where possible, leadership should provide relief from the unintended consequences of changes.

Lead with empathy.

After you explain why you have to change something, acknowledge the annoyance. ‘We need to use two-factor authentication to comply with new security standards in our field. We realize this may mean you will log into the system multiple times over the course of the day. Thank you for your patience as we make our customer data safer.’

Acknowledging the annoyance helps everyone to feel seen. For many people, that’s all they need to keep them from complaining to you. Others might reach out to complain, but they will usually acknowledge that you weren’t going out of your way to ruin their lives.

In my work as an analyst, I decide who gets to run certain programs, and who doesn’t. I break bad news on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that leading with empathy is often the difference between someone flipping out, and someone telling you they understand your decision.

None of us like breaking bad news. It can be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and give up attempting to craft our message. Take time to strike the right tone, provide context for a change, and lead with empathy. If you do, you can bring people through the change with a minimum of complaining–and your credibility intact.

Author: Teresa

I am an analyst for Kaplan and a business writer. When I'm not analyzing numbers or trying to find the perfect phrase, I manage my obsessions for chai tea, knitting, and running in the woods.

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