Here is a situation that would be sure to ruin the holidays of all but the most hard-hearted of managers: imagine it is time for your company’s end-of-year party, and you are surrounded by smiling, happy co-workers. But you know something that they do not: the company is downsizing or shifting its strategic focus and many of the people in the room will not have jobs come the New Year. Even worse, you are the one who will have to deliver the bad news.
It is the type of hard conversation that anybody with a pulse, empathy, and a conscience would dread. But having to lay someone off is just one of any number of difficult – not to mention potentially emotional and confrontational – conversations managers will eventually have to face. Other treacherous topics include addressing how underperforming employees can improve or altering the behavior of an effective yet interpersonally toxic staffer.
It is important to remember this: people will respond in a variety of ways to bad news. Some people will lash out defensively, and others will respond with equanimity and a desire to improve. All you can control is how you initiate and guide an emotionally fraught conversation. Here are some tips to do it well.
Prepare Emotionally and Strategically
Preparing yourself for a difficult conversation of any sort at work requires using both sides of the brain. A recent blog in The Harvard Business Review outlined what a mistake it can be for managers to head into what is bound to be an emotional conference with only Spock-like rationality: “If a team member is not pulling his weight, get proof; if your officemate makes an egregious mistake, take note of the ways her mistake breaches company policy.”
It’s not that a command of the facts isn’t important; it’s just that steely logic is not sufficient by itself. Understanding and being sympathetic to the feelings of the person receiving troubling news is the hallmark of an emotionally intelligent leader and is absolutely essential to successfully navigating difficult conversations. Consider, for instance, beginning a talk with a colleague who needs to boost their performance by highlighting positive attributes and assuring them of your desire that they remain in your department or at the company. This can reframe the entire conversation into one focused on finding collaborative solutions rather than one dominated by fault-finding and negativity.
If the conversation leads to a termination, keep in mind just how emotionally fraught this news can be for people. In a matter of seconds, their livelihood and future will suddenly feel very precarious, so it is up to the manager to be respectful of the gravity of the situation and be compassionate without commiserating.If your company offers outplacement services, be sure to highlight your commitment to helping them transition to another job. This can provide the affected employee with a much-needed sense of control.
On a strategic level, the most important thing for managers to do is be prepared in advance of a hard conversation. If it is not a termination, know exactly what you want to achieve in the talk. What will be the result? Do you want, for example, to agree on a plan of action for an employee to turn their performance around? Be ready to state clearly as possible why the conversation is necessary.
When You Are on the Receiving End of Bad News
What if you are the one hearing that your performance needs improvement or, worse, that you are fired? Especially if you are being terminated, the key to handling the news well immediately and in the aftermath is your interpretation of the situation. Understand that even if your separation is involuntary, you have choices for making a smooth transition and maintaining a good relationship with your former employer.
As hard as the news may be, your goal should be to react with grace and class. Responding in such a manner under challenging circumstances will make an impression and set you up for potential future recommendations or partnerships with your former employer, which will give you a sense of agency in your job search or future career path.
Whether you are initiating or on the receiving end of a difficult conversation, by maintaining your composure, being prepared, and showing sympathy and emphathy, you can facilitate a productive meeting and work toward mutually positive outcomes.