A trainer once said to me wistfully, “Class participants. They’re either victims, forced to be here, or slackers, avoiding work. Oh sure, sometimes you’ll get a genuine student, here because he wants to learn. But it’s been months since I’ve had a student in one of my courses.”

Well, if you want students, not victims or slackers, be there when bad news is coming and your colleagues are looking for your help in dealing with it. Because I guarantee you’ll have everyone’s attention.

It’s an old story: invite managers to a communications webinar and they’ll yawn, avoid your eyes — and avoid your class. Tell managers you need them to explain some difficult decisions to employees and answer questions, and you’ll see them sit up straight, demand more information and ask how they’re supposed to do this. You couldn’t ask for a more willing audience.

They are depending on you to equip them to deal with angry employees when they go back to their offices. Training makes a difference.

The difficult truth

“… the challenges of leadership are emotional and conversational rather than logical and tactical …”

Bill Jensen, 2000

When the going gets tough, leadership needs to step up. And stepping up doesn’t mean sugaring over the truth, spinning the news, or any of the other tactics that we think will help employees get through. Management consultant Bill Jensen talked about the real challenges of leadership being the ability to connect in the most basic way almost 15 years ago, and his words ring as true to me today as they did then.

If you are going to help other manage through the bad news cycle, you need to help them have their empathy ears on high, and then you need to be ready to demonstrate a different way of communicating through tough times.

Yeah, yeah. I see you. You’re rolling your eyes at this soft, fluffy, emotional stuff. So I’m asking you to put your cynical side in the background for a moment and listen to someone who has made more mistakes communicating bad news than you can shake a stick at — but has learned (painfully) from those missteps.

It’s only human nature

Consider three factors:

  1. Immediate managers are the number one preferred source of information for their employees.
  2. Good managers are intensely loyal to their employees. They want their employees to be happy and productive.
  3. Managers are … human. And it’s human nature to want to be liked. Especially by your team.

So what happens when managers are asked to deliver bad news? You can get staff meetings like this:

Manager: (Deep sigh. Defeated posture). “I have some news for you. Corporate has decided that it’s necessary to …”

OK. Stop the presses. You’ve already lost. Your manager, through body language, tone and expression, has just told employees that corporate has made another idiotic decision and that the employees will pay the price for it. So don’t be surprised when employees do not react well to this news.

A normal, caring manager wants to break the news kindly. And generally wants to separate him/herself from the decision. Without training, it’s very difficult to get the process you’re looking for — an objective, calm description of the facts, and the ability to respond to basic questions.

Look. No one likes to do this stuff. But if a company has the courage to make hard decisions, it must have the courage to communicate the news properly. And that means preparing the managers to deliver.

A five-step game plan to get you through

1. Employee reaction

You need to know how employees will react. You can quickly get much of the information by running a small focus group with a hand-picked group of trusted employees (who, of course, must sign a nondisclosure agreement first).

In the session, spend 10 to 15 minutes giving a high-level overview of what is changing, why it is changing and when the change will occur. Now ask participants to communicate and change management questions. For example:

  • What questions do you have about what I just presented?
  • What other questions do you think employees will be asking?
  • Based on what I told you, do you believe the change is warranted? Why or why not?
  • How do you feel employees will react to this news?
  • If the company moves ahead with this decision, how would you like to see this communicated?
  • What should the company avoid?
  • What kind of support do you think employees will need?
  • What other advice would you give us to help us come through this change as smoothly as possible?

This information will equip you to create a training and support plan that will meet the real needs of employees.

2. Roles and responsibilities

Be clear — and realistic — about what you want managers to do.

One option

  • Managers are expected to be the primary deliverer of the news
  • Managers should plan on answering some basic questions and capturing the questions that he or she cannot answer
  • Within a certain time period, managers must meet with their teams to communicate the change
  • Managers are expected to deliver the news objectively and professionally, supporting the company position even if they personally disagree with it

Another option

  • Human resource professionals are expected to be the primary deliverer of the news, with managers attending the session along with their employees (managers should be communicated with first, so they know what is coming)
  • These HR sessions will be a combination of presentation of material plus Q&A
  • Managers are expected to support the company position even if they personally disagree with it. There are, of course, many other options. Whatever is right for you, make sure you know what you’re asking for, and what you need to do to make sure you get the result you want.

3. Message clarity

Because you asked your focus group the question, you have a reasonably good idea of what parts of your presentation were clear and which were muddy. Look at the questions you received and think about how credible your participants found your messaging. Most likely, your messages need some re-crafting.

Build the story that explains what is happening, why, and what it means to employees. Make sure you have an elevator speech where you can summarize the change in just a couple of sentences — this is something that will help keep the communication consistent.

4. Making the messenger credible

This is perhaps the most important part of the job — giving managers the tools to be credible, trusted and maintain relationships. So some tips for you to include in your training:

  • Tell it, don’t sell it. Train managers to present the facts objectively. They should NOT say this is the greatest change to ever happen, just as they shouldn’t say this is the worst change to ever happen. Respect employees. Let them make up their own minds.
  • Avoid editorial comments. They only get you in trouble.
  • Watch your body language and tone of voice. Make sure you don’t sound whiny or aggressive or defensive. Stand up straight (no slouching!) and maintain good eye contact. Exude calm.
  • People are entitled to their feelings. It’s OK if they are angry or frustrated. Let them vent but know how to handle it. Never argue with an angry person — it just further inflames the situation. Instead, listen, summarize, empathize. You can do all that without agreeing, e.g., “I hear you, and I can see that you’re upset.”

5. Design and hold the training

You know what you want to say, you know what you want your managers to do, you know what you want managers NOT to do — it’s time to design the course.

I’ve written before about the importance of creating a run guide — a matrix that helps you create a well-designed, logical, clean course. Here’s an example:

Part of the course design must be to role-play the meeting you’re asking your managers to give. You may want to tell them to pay close attention, because you’re going to ask them to role-play the session right back to you. Do a group activity where you assign small groups to divide up the presentation and demonstrate how they would talk about a particular topic.

Before they present, spend some time talking about body language, presentation tips, how to handle questions and answers.

Finish up the preparation with a Questions from Hell session, asking your participants to ask you the worst, meanest questions an employee might ask. Record the questions on a flip chart. Then ask participants to brainstorm answers. That takes a lot of the fear out of the job.

Finish the day with participant presentations. You may want to provide individual coaching or feedback.

It’s a big job … either way

You know the saying — pay me now or pay me later? That old saw absolutely describes the situation that companies are in when they make difficult decisions that impact employees.

You don’t have to train anyone — you can send an email, have your CEO announce it, send out a video message, hold a webinar, or not do anything and let your local paper make the announcement for you. You’ll save a ton of time and trouble at the outset. But you know there will be hell to pay down the line.

Or you can make the investment up front, and gain some control over the situation by training your managers. It’s hard, it takes time and money, and no one likes it. But managers will thank you in the end, because you helped them look strong, confident and prepared — and to help their employees in a very meaningful way.

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