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How to share bad news without murdering morale 

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. But is it possible to do so and not seem like the bad guy? YES! When, how, and how often, you communicate can make or break your success. Especially if the news is difficult.

Based on our experience with a whole variety of national and international businesses, here are some tips for getting it right.

1. Don’t wait to share the news

Leaders are often reluctant to communicate bad news until they have all the answers. But change is rarely that tidy, and waiting can make it look like you’ve something to hide. Plus, the rumour mill will swing into action to fill the vacuum you’ve created – and rumours left to circulate create distrust. Our advice is to communicate early and often and be transparent and honest. If a topic’s confidential, explain you can’t discuss it fully yet, but say when to expect more information and where to get it from.

2. Use a variety of channels

Some people like to read and re-read information to absorb it. Others just want the headlines. And some prefer to watch a quick video and get on with their day. So plan to announce the news in several formats on a range of channels. And make sure people can revisit your announcements if they want to check the facts.

3. Never swerve the difficult questions

It’s always best to address difficult questions proactively. People will ask them anyway. And if you’ve not pre-empted them, you’re on the back foot. If you can’t answer a question, say so. Don’t try to bluff – people always see through it, and it shakes their trust in you. Say you’ll give an answer or update as soon as possible (give a specific timeframe if you can) and follow through with your promise. If you can’t stick to the timeframe, say why and continue giving updates.

4. Treat employees like grown-ups

Gone are the days of command and control. Today’s workforces perform at their best when they’re founded on mutual respect. So create an environment of collaboration and consultation. Trust that employees can cope with bad news, ask them for their views and involve them in tackling the challenges you’re facing. If you keep them in the dark or try to railroad them in a new direction, you’ll lose credibility, people will disengage and morale will plummet.

5. Be clear and speak like a real person

When you have something difficult to say, it’s easy to slip into formal language or use jargon or technicalities to try to distance yourself from the news. But this can make it difficult for your audience to understand and it makes you distant from them, not the topic. So say exactly what you mean, in words people will understand. If necessary, use an interpreter and translated written materials to reach non-native English speakers – even if your official business language is English.

6. Listen carefully

What are people saying before and after you communicate the news? And what are they not saying? Are the same things being asked over and again? Considerations like these will help you make sure your communications are clear and provide the right information in the right ways. It might mean you need to repeat the message, find new ways to communicate it or give more information. Keep tweaking your communication programme in response to what you hear.

7. Stay in the spotlight and provide support

Put yourself in their shoes and consider how it would feel to receive this news. This will guide you both on how to communicate the news and the support to offer afterwards. Who should people turn to if they’re worried? Where can they go to get more information? Most importantly, stick around – don’t make the announcement then hide away. Be visible and keep talking to lots of different people across your workforce to gauge how best to move forward.


Expert help to guide you through

Giving bad news is never fun. But, in our experience, nothing beats detailed preparation for making it less painful. Which is why it makes all the difference to have support from internal communications experts. From advice on messaging strategy to helping you run the gauntlet of stakeholder management; and from planning logistics to delivering the announcement, understanding its impact, and helping to shape the future of your business – this is what we do.

At Fresh Communication we’re ALL about internal communications because we believe it’s at the heart of every successful business. Even when it comes to sharing bad news. In fact, especially then.

Let’s talk about how Fresh can help your business – through the good times and the bad.