3 Tips for Giving Bad News in Tough Times

By Dianna Booher

The volatility in the stock market during the past few weeks—along with the pundits on TV—reminds me of the Chicken Little fable. Just in case you’ve forgotten this classic, let me refresh you: One day, Chicken Little is walking in the woods when an acorn falls on her head. “Oh, my goodness!” she says, “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king.” On the way to the palace, she meets Henny Penny going into the woods to hunt for berries. “Oh no, don’t go!” she says, “I was just there, and the sky was falling! Come with me to tell the king.” So Henny Penny follows her.

They follow along until they meet Cocky Locky, who was going into the woods to hunt for seeds. “Oh no, don’t go!” says Chicken Little. “I was just there, and the sky was falling! Come with me to tell the king.” So Cocky Locky follows her and Henny Penny.

They follow along until they meet Turkey Lurkey going into the woods to look for berries. Same drill.

Finally, they meet up with Foxy Woxy, who asks where they’re going. Same warning from the feathered friends. But instead of following Chicken Little, Foxy Woxy says, “I know a shortcut to the palace.” Rather than the palace, he leads them to the entrance of the foxhole, where he plans to gobble them for dinner.

Just as they are about to enter, the king’s hunting dogs rush up growling and howling. They chase the fox away and save Chicken Little and her other fine-feathered friends. The smart king gives her an umbrella to carry for future walks in the woods.

So what’s the moral of this fable? Consider the credibility gap the next time Chicken Little warns colleagues about impending danger.

People shy away from those who jump to conclusions without checking the facts and who worry rather than weigh options. Worry leads to poor judgment and hasty overreactions. Nor are people attracted to those who practice hand-wringing and preach doom and gloom.

A message of despair goes against human nature and the need to hope for the best.

Mature optimism is a cornerstone of healthy living. So when you’re habitually communicating that “the sky is falling,” people draw the conclusion that you’re overwhelmed, unprepared, and incapable of dealing with situations. None of which leads to building your credibility.

That said, neither do people subscribe to the Emperor-Has-No-Clothes philosophy.

When a serious situation develops, leaders do not resort to pep talks and platitudes, pretending that all is well. Leaders know that words shape thought. They provide healthy diets of hope while acknowledging a negative situation. All change—personal or organizational—begins by seeing reality and then creating a vision to improve upon it.

So in the midst of bad news, keep in mind these three guidelines:

1. Acknowledge the Truth

If the economy is free-falling, say so. If sales are sinking, say so. If your team is performing poorly, own up to the numbers. If the organization looks lousy beside the competition, come clean about the market feedback.

Nothing opens people’s minds and raises their estimation of your credibility like admitting the truth—and nothing decreases your credibility like ignoring the obvious or blaming, demonizing, or scapegoating others. You understand how pathetic that makes politicians look if you’ve ever heard them try to explain away election results after a dramatic loss or listened to CEOs try to explain away poor earnings after failure to achieve their goals.

Small people run from responsibility. Strong people shoulder it.

2. Stop Sugarcoating the Unknown and Unknowable

“You’ll do fine!” “Everything’s going to be fine—just wait and see.” “It’ll all work itself out. It always does.” Such are the assurances parents give their kids. You expect them and even appreciate them—at age thirteen. But to an adult hearing such platitudes from bosses, colleagues, or friends who could not possibly know the future and how a situation will actually turn out, the remarks sound empty, if not insulting to our intelligence.

That’s not to say you can’t offer comforting words. You can and should. But to be helpful and consoling, they should be the right words. Strive to get past the clichés and all-will-be-well platitudes to meaningful comments that comfort and help. Leaders can acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. Most important, they feel powerful enough to sustain people with their presence rather than empty promises of “all will be well.”

3. Focus on Options

In a negative situation, leaders focus others on positive alternatives and actions with the power of their words. If you’re communicating about a tanking economy, the alternative may be to encourage listeners to change investment strategies. If you’re communicating to comfort employees after personal property destruction because of a weather-related disaster, you may encourage them to consider rebuilding in another area. If you’re announcing a layoff––in addition to communicating concern––you may focus them on the option of new training or maybe contacts to start their own company.

To increase your credibility in a bad-news situation, ditch a down-in-the-mouth demeanor. Become a thought leader with helpful straight talk about the substantive issues.

About the Author:

Dianna Booher works with organizations to increase productivity and effectiveness through better communication: oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational. Her latest book is Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader. For more information, visit  www.booher.com

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