Java with Joe: Delivering Bad News…a Servant-Leader Approach

When I stepped into my first executive leadership role at Digital Equipment Corporation, I received some valuable advice from the person I was replacing. He said: “There are two things about this job you’ll need to learn right away. One, how to apologize; two, how to deliver bad news.” He was right, as it didn’t take long before I had to do both!

Conversations that involve delivering bad news are never easy; they’re never fun. But if you’re a leader at any level, those conversations come with the job. So the question is, as a Servant Leader, what can you do to make those conversations less painful and more productive, both for you and the other person?

The first piece of advice I’d offer is don’t kick the can down the road. In my experience, many leaders are so uncomfortable about delivering a tough message that they just put the whole thing off, thinking that maybe the situation will improve on its own. But of course, this almost never happens, and by waiting, the problem at hand often gets even worse, and the eventual conversation even more painful.

So don’t put the conversation off just because you’re uncomfortable, but don’t rush into it either. Give yourself time to gather all the necessary information. That way you’ll feel more confident going in and be much better prepared in the event that the conversation produces a negative response.

Preparing for that tough conversation should also involve getting your head in the right place. Maybe because winter is on its way and it’s a long way to fishing season, let me throw in a little fly-fishing example here. Let’s say that you know a nice fish is sitting over there beside the river bank, right under the overhanging branches of a big tree. As you get ready to cast, there’s a powerful temptation to look at those branches, right where you don’t want your cast to land. But I can pretty much guarantee that if you give in to that temptation, that’s exactly where you’ll end up, all tangled in the branches of that tree.

The point is, when you’re preparing for a tough conversation, it’s hard not to focus on just how painful it’s going to be. But if you go into the conversation with that mindset, you’re almost guaranteeing that the conversation will indeed be painful.

A better approach is to go in with the idea that the conversation is an opportunity to help the other person succeed—even if you’re letting them go and they’ll have to succeed somewhere else.

Another part of getting your head in the right place beforehand is to think about how the other person is likely to see the problem you plan to address. Will they see the problem the same way as you do? Will they even recognize that the problem exists? How can you frame the discussion so that you both end up on the same page?

As for the conversation itself, your natural inclination might be to cut to the chase and keep it short. You might think that this is the best way to minimize the pain, but in my experience, this approach almost always leaves the other person feeling like they’ve been treated badly. A better approach is to give the other person a warning that something is up and if possible, give them a little time to prepare, and even to feel as if they have some measure of control. You can, for example, say something like, “We need to talk about an issue that I think is important. Is there a time later today or tomorrow when we can sit down together?”

When you do begin the conversation, it’s ok to acknowledge that you’re uncomfortable, saying something like, “Conversations like this are never easy, but it’s important to you, to me, and to the team.” On the other hand, I’d avoid anything that sound like the old, “This hurts me more than it does you.” In other words, don’t make yourself the victim. In fact, one of the most important things for you to remember is: the conversation is not about you. Delivering bad news is uncomfortable for almost everyone; that’s why we avoid doing it. But as Servant-Leaders, we need to deliver the messages that people need to hear so they can learn and grow.

As you go forward with the discussion, it’s important that you empathize with the other person. Give them time to process what you’re saying. Slow things down. Sometimes it helps to say something like,  “I know this is a hard message for you. Go ahead and take a moment before we continue. When you’re ready, just let me know.” As you go along, ask for the other person’s response. In some cases, they may actually change your perception of the situation, and if that happens, don’t be afraid to say so, but in any case, it’s important that you really listen to what they have to say.

Sometimes you’ll find that the other person just isn’t able to accept what you’re saying. Rather than keep pushing and run the risk of creating an even more emotionally charged situation, you might be better off to say that you’ll circle back with them at another time. Say that you hope they’ll take the time to think about what you’ve discussed and come into the next meeting prepared to figure out a path forward.

No matter how the conversation goes, you should really try to end it on a positive note. Sometimes this means coming to some agreement on what steps the other person needs to take to rectify the situation, and what you can do to help them succeed. Sometimes it means just leaving the door open for a continuing discussion. The point is, you don’t want to just hit someone with bad news and then abruptly send them off to lick their wounds.

And finally, let me say this: tough conversations are a lot easier when the people involved trust one another. If you’ve taken the time to earn the trust of the people around you, it will be easier (if not easy) to be the bearer of bad news. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, you earn people’s trust by being clear about your own values, by being consistent in acting on those values, by being honest about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Remember, being credible is not just about your expertise, it’s about your truthfulness and your willingness to say you don’t have an answer or admit that you’ve made a mistake. Reliability is about whether other people will believe you’re going to do what you say.

So, with all this in mind, are there conversations you know you need to have but have been putting off? How can you create the right climate to have them? How can you get your mind in the right place, so that the conversation will not be about you? How can you make the conversation, however difficult the topic, lead to something positive for the other person and for your organization?