It’s the most uncomfortable task any IT leader can ever face: delivering bad news to team members. Whether the news is about layoffs, a cancelled project, the loss of a key client or, worst of all, an illness or death, it’s important to convey the information as quickly and humanely as possible.
Boris Jabes, CEO at data analytics tool provider Census, says it’s important to break bad news in a way that minimizes pain, confusion, and disruption. He recommends “being clear and concise about what’s happening, being honest about any potential negative impacts, and providing as much information as possible.” Jabes adds that it can also be “helpful to provide support and resources to employees who will be affected by the change.”
Kimberley Tyler-Smith, a former McKinsey & Company analyst, currently strategist at career tech service company Resume Worded, agrees. “The best way to tell your team is by being honest, direct, and compassionate,” she says. “The more you can do this, the better off you’ll be.”
Try to remain calm and organized while delivering the news, advises Jeremy Richard, head of IT and security for asset intelligence platform provider Armis. “It will help you to reaffirm your leadership in stormy situations,” he notes.
Biljana Rakic, vice president of human capital at business tools developer COING, cautions against speaking prematurely, before solid, verified information becomes available. Yet she also warns that holding back confirmed news can be just as dangerous. “Rumors and conversations between employees may start, which may turn the initial news into a completely different story,” Rakic explains.
Above all, it’s important to remember that the IT leader is solely responsible for setting the communication’s style and mood. “Your tone and approach to the whole situation, and how you present it, largely determines how people will take the news,” Rakic says.
Easing the Pain
Whenever bad job-related news is presented, keeping team members informed and involved will help them feel invested in the final outcome, Tyler-Smith says. “This can go a long way toward mitigating adverse effects on morale and job satisfaction when things don’t go as planned.”
Human nature shows that people need to understand a decision’s “why” in order to cooperate and invest themselves in the effort required to overcome any impact, Richard says. “This is even more accurate when those individuals are part of a hierarchical organization.”
Step back and identify the core issue. Understand how the news will affect the recipients. “There’s no need to go into too much detail,” Rakic advises. “If you have intense emotions about this topic, try to find a way to calm down so that you can convey the information in the best possible way.” When the news is really bad, she also suggests providing a safe physical, psychological, emotional, and social space for employees to process their emotions in private.
Under no circumstances should the bad news be delivered on the enterprise website, by email, or via a recorded video message. “In-person is the best way; online meetings are also okay,” says Danylo Tolmachov, head of software engineering at software systems builder TechStack. “Everything should be clear and visual,” he adds.
When announcing bad news, communication should be delivered simultaneously with the entire team to avoid uncontrolled side-chats and speculations, Richard suggests. “For global teams in different time zones, make sure to keep the communication intervals between the teams as short as possible,” he says.
Don’t try to sugarcoat the situation or withhold information. “This will only cause confusion and frustration, and it will ultimately make the transition more difficult for everyone involved,” Census’ Jabes says.
Attempts at minimizing the bad news could lead team members to also downplay the situation, shifting the conversation away from a constructive discussion. It’s also important not to shift the focus to how difficult the situation is for you personally. “Employees aren’t interested in your emotions at this moment, their focus is on themselves,” Rakic says. Remain firm in your decision and stick to the amount of information that’s sufficient to adequately communicate the news, she advises. “This means not getting into justifications or additional explanations.”
If the bad news relates to layoffs, a project cancellation, or any other form of cutback, it’s important not to offer excuses for anyone involved in the decision-making process. “Otherwise, people may feel like they’ve been misled, or are being treated unfairly, because they weren’t given enough information upfront,” Tyler-Smith says.
Communication style is another important factor to keep in mind. “Instead of switching to a formal, corporate style, it’s better to keep the tone and style that feels familiar to the team,” Rakic says. “Give employees space to listen carefully and to cognitively process the information.”