I had the good fortune this week to be interviewed for an article about how supervisors can communicate bad news. As a manager, I've done a bit of this, and I've certainly been on the receiving end. As a consultant, I've advised others communicating organizational changes that could be seen as bad news. As a PR student, I've done cases and simulations where we've closed plants, dealt with explosions and industrial accidents, and fired the CEO. But I did most of this before I learned about emotional intelligence.
In answering this reporter's questions, I saw the situation through a filter of emotions. As a result, I think recognizing and discussing the emotional component makes communicating less of an ordeal.
Bad news brings out emotions, your own and other people's. The feelings that emerge, sadness, fear, and anger, are the most uncomfortable of our emotional repertoire. Generations of humans have not learned to deal well with these particular feelings. As children, when they show up, we're urged by well-meaning adults to "cheer up," "be brave," and "calm down." (One EQ trainer I've worked with likes to quote an old family saying, "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!") So we learn to suppress, change or hide these "bad" feelings, rather than understand them and use the information they contain.
But humans are emotional beings and we don't stop being human when we get to work. Like it or not, feelings are going to come up, sometimes in unexpected ways. The thinking part of our brain (the neo-cortex) functions poorly when we're in the grip of emotion. The "fight or flight" portion of our brain (the amygdala) has control. (Emotional intelligence theory labels this "emotional hijack.")
So when you're delivering bad news to employees (or anyone else) you need to be sensitive to the emotions. Logic, alone, won't work. People aren't thinking clearly; their brains won't let them.
When bad news hits, a person goes through a process that's similar to the grieving process. The intensity will vary with the individual and the situation - "No bonus this year" is a lot less intense than "The plant is closing." But a form of grieving takes place whenever there is change. In her studies of grief, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross observed five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
As a manager communicating news that will mean a big change for your employees, you can expect them to experience these feelings and behaviours as they try to process the information andwork through their feelings. Only after they work through the first four will they get to acceptance.
- Denial: Employees believe the news isn't true or won't affect them. Help them by providing information.
- Anger: Employees feel wronged and may want to retaliate. Tears may signify the frustration of unexpressed anger, not sadness. Help by listening and finding ways they can redirect their energy towards something useful.
- Bargaining: Employees will try to make deals to prevent the unwanted event. Guard against encouraging false hopes.
- Depression: If employees exhibit signs of depression, listen and empathize - and encourage them to take advantage of any counselling available.
- Acceptance: It may take time for employees to reach this stage. Help throughout the process by making yourself available to talk about the feelings and the facts of the situation.
Since most people are unaccustomed to discussing their feelings, especially at work, you'll probably have to "go first" when it comes to sharing feelings. Admit that you're uncomfortable but you recognize that there are feelings associated with the news and they are as important as the facts. Invite employees to talk about how they feel. Chances are good that if you talk as one human to another, rather than defending the decision or just stating the facts, you'll build trust as you move forward.