Delivering Difficult Messages the Right Way

Nov 29, 2011
18 Min Read

Picture this scenario: You leave your boss’s office after hearing there are going to be a number of belt-tightening measures throughout the company that will affect your team’s structure. As you head back to your desk, you feel the acid start to churn in your stomach as you consider the most important bit of news you just have been told: There will be layoffs if the proposed changes don’t produce better bottom-line results.

You reach your desk and pull out the Pepto-Bismol you keep in a bottom drawer.

While you chug it down, you wonder how you’re going to convey such a difficult message to your team. The team, you know, has been busting its collective butt and working long hours. They’ve been giving their all, you believe, and you don’t know how you’re going to rally them to produce even better results after you drop the bombshell about possible layoffs.

More and more managers have been faced with such scenarios during these challenging economic times, but not all of them succeed in moving a team through it. Sometimes they so ineptly deliver a message that a team never recovers and employees and the company suffer.

But experts say there is a way to deliver a message from the C-suite to workers so that no matter how much employees may dislike it or disagree with it, they won’t run screaming into the night but will instead embrace it and move forward.

The key, experts say, is you. You must be a confident, focused force that is ready to lead them through their minefield of confusion or anger toward a clear objective.


Creating resilience.

Before you talk to team members, remember they already may have an inkling that changes are afoot. Your message may be a welcome one, because they’ll finally have facts instead of just gossip, says John Daly, a communications and management professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Be direct, not mean,” he advises. “But also don’t create a sense of false hope. You’re there to give them reasons about why the decisions are being made.”

That’s why it’s important before you convey any message to the team that you know as much as possible about the reasoning behind a directive from the top. Be honest if you don’t know, says Daly, author of Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Others.

“Tell them that while you wish you knew more, you don’t. But say, ‘Here’s what I do know and I’ll tell you when I find out more,’” he says. “Don’t whine about it.”

He also cautions against offering “reasonable guesses” about company decisions, because those comments will be widely circulated.  In other words, you may come to regret your speculations if they come to be regarded as facts or reach your boss’s ears.

Another key, he says, is being as specific as possible.

“People fear regret more than opportunity,” he says. “So you tell them, ‘If we don’t do this, then here’s what’s going to happen.’”

He cautions, however, about making your message so full of dire consequences that the team becomes paralyzed with fear. “You don’t want them shutting down,” he says.

Libby Wagner, a management consultant, says that some managers faced with conveying bad news to their teams have made the mistake of telling them that they’re still “ lucky to have a job” so they should just deal with it, or use  “this-is-no-big-deal” reasoning. Either way, those messages damage a manager’s credibility, she says.

She agrees with Daly that the best strategy is to get as many answers as you can from upper level managers, then be honest with team members about what is going to be required from them.

“That way, you’re still being respectful, you’re still maintaining high integrity and you’re not hiding anything,” she says. “That helps to create resilience in the people you’re managing because they believe in you.”

Creating resilient teams, she adds, is key for managers who need their workers to be able to withstand shifting global markets, a slow economy and layoff fears now and in the future.

“What happens is that bad news distracts people from what they need to do. It gets chaotic. So, you’re in the middle being given an order to deliver a difficult message, but you’ve got to translate it into a message that will keep them organized,” Wagner says.

One way to do that is by taking extra time to communicate with workers, to remind them of the good work they’re doing and the progress they’ve made, she says.

Karol Wasylyshyn, author of Behind the Executive Door: Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your Boss and Career says it’s also important to “build a bridge” of hope for workers after delivering a difficult message.

“You have to make it clear to people that if they do the things you’re asking, then this is why you’re hopeful for the future,” Wasylyshyn says. “You have to remember that when they hear news of change, they’re reeling. They’re disappointed or they disagree with it. You have to be the one to give them hope.”

Wagner recommends also using a strategy she calls “clearing the swamp.”

“That means that you ask the team: ‘What is standing in our way?’ You’re looking for the reasons that you don’t have high productivity or high morale. Then you find ways to remove those obstacles for your team,” says Wagner, author of The Influencing Option: The Art of Building a Profit Culture in Business.

Weathering the rough seas.

All those interviewed for this story agree that these are indeed more challenging times for managers. Most were probably never taught in business school how to deal with people on a daily basis who may be terrified of losing their jobs, can’t pay their mortgage or have been saddled with the work of two or more people for the last several years and given only minimum pay increases – if at all.

Adding to that mix are the pressures the middle manager feels from higher ups who are demanding better results from employees.

To further complicate the mission, how does a manager cope if he or she believes the message will cause a huge backlash from employees and may damage any chance to achieve the desired results?

“Upper management often doesn’t know the truth. It is often the job of those between the troops and the people at the top to find a way to deliver the truth that is both constructive and persuasive,” Wasylyshyn says.

But what if the top dogs don’t want to listen to the truth?

“I would suggest talking to your peers at the company and see if they can help you come up with some ideas about approaches you can take to influence the people at the top from making an erroneous or unfair message,” Wasylyshyn says. “But if you can’t do that, and you’re working in a toxic culture that won’t let you be a truth teller, then you may have to start planning your escape, because you’re talking about a major prescription for stress and depression.”

Despite these difficult times, managers must try to remain “courageous and authentic” and “true to who you are,” Wasylyshyn says.

Wagner says managers should realize they’re not alone and that many in the same position are losing sleep these days.

“Most managers want to do a good job and make a difference and help people,” Wagner says. “They go into management thinking that it’s going to be exciting and challenging and have a payoff for them. But they don’t really understand the people challenges they will face.”

Wagner tells the story of one client, for example, who was told to tell his team that they would all have to reapply for their jobs after already being through several reorganizations. “Yeah, that really is a conversation he wants to have, especially when he knows how hard they’ve all been working,” she says.

John Murphy, executive and team coach and founder of John Murphy International, says he has had personal experience with letting some employees go while trying to keep remaining workers motivated.

He suggests “communicating like a lunatic about what needs to be done,” with each employee individually and with the workers as a group.

“You’ve got to have a clear roadmap that demonstrates what is required to move from where you are now to where you need to be, and what each person needs to communicate,” Murphy says.


Don’t wimp out.

Despite their efforts, many managers simply don’t communicate well, no matter the message. They launch into their spiel, often using business jargon that confuses the team. Their voices don’t carry confidence, and their body language screams they would rather be somewhere else.

In his book, Daly points out several ways that managers can communicate confident messages. Among his suggestions for not becoming a “verbal wimp” are to:


  • Use simple language. There’s no need to say “at the present time” when “now” is more concise. When you use simple words and short sentences, it makes it easier for your team to grasp your ideas and that helps you be seen as more credible.
  • Use inclusive language. Research on close relationships shows happily married couples use more first-person language such as “we” instead of “I” than those who are unhappily wed. Those spouses who started a conversation with “I” were not as successful in their persuasive efforts.
  • Tap into emotions. Daly notes that when Steve Jobs described the iPad in 2010, he talked about an “incredible” group and how the chip they created had “everything” in it “and it screams.”  Your energetic words can relay your support for an idea – just make sure you don’t go so overboard your credibility is questioned.
  • Don’t hedge. Avoid terms like “sorta” or “maybe,” which make you sound unconfident. Dump any phrases that dismiss your abilities such as “I’m no expert” or “you may think this is stupid.” Filler words such as “like,” “you know,” and “um” reduce your persuasiveness and credibility. Daly points out that in her unsuccessful 2009 bid for the Senate, Caroline Kennedy said “you know” more than 30 times in a two-and-a-half-minute interview. “In all the recorded inaugural speeches by U.S. presidents since 1940 there is not a single ‘uh’ or ‘um,’” Daly says.
  • Stop harping about a “problem.” Using the same word over and over again can make you seem less competent. Vary your language when talking to employees. For example, instead of saying “problem” 10 times, try using words such as “challenge,” or “issue.”
  • Stay positive. Studies have shown that words highlighting success rather than failure are more likely to move people in a positive direction. So, instead of saying “If we adopt this plan…” use “When we adopt this plan…,” Daly suggests. He also says that using action-oriented words, such as “let’s act on this now,” is more powerful than saying “let’s contemplate doing this.”
  • Provide details. While you don’t want to provide irrelevant details, which can distract and confuse your audience, telling a story that a team can “see” will help the information be viewed as more credible.
  • Get pumped. Whether it’s listening to a favorite song or reading an inspirational quote, take the time to get your mind geared up to deliver a message with confidence. You want your voice to be steady, and your body language energetic when you talk to a team. They need to see you as capable of leading them through any challenge.
  • Own the room. Don’t fidget when talking, fiddle with a pen or dart your eyes around a room. Try watching yourself on video with the sound turned off. Do you command attention, or look tentative and unsure?
  • Gauge the situation. Managers must be attuned to individuals in the room and the specific circumstances when deciding how to convey a message. Using too many forceful words, for example, can be a turnoff. Or, being overly confident can make you seem like an arrogant buffoon.  Daly stresses that all the techniques he suggests must be “delicately balanced.”

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