Even the most confident women leaders sometimes get tripped up delivering difficult messages.
It’s understandable. Women in leadership have to be tough, but they don’t want to come across as insensitive.
And leaders who have to tell an employee his work is poor, explain layoffs, or share bad news risk sounding insensitive.
So what do they often do? Delay it.
A study in Social Science Research Network found that, not surprisingly, business leaders are slower to share bad news than good news.
Sure, it’s easier to deliver a positive message, but it’s more important to get a difficult message right.
Even difficult messages have positive areas. Divide your message into safe parts — those that you know will come across as positive — and unsafe parts — those that will likely be seen as negative.
Then you can start the conversation in a safe place that will let you build a dialogue, rather than a monologue of your thoughts, which would tend to focus on the negative areas.
Open with something like this, “Tell me about how you approach this task” or “Tell me how you feel about the current … ” “Tell me what you you’ve noticed about …”
Avoid putting people on the spot with absolute statements such as, “You always … ” “You never …” or “We absolutely must … .”
Ask good questions before you give your angle. You might want to take on what Gallagher calls a “learning posture”: Face the person (or people) you’re talking with and lean in a bit. Then explore their thoughts or position on the subject with questions like these:
- “It seems like you’re frustrated with … What’s going on?”
- “You seem concerned. How do you feel about our position on … ?”
- “I noticed you did X. What happened?”
- “This is a serious matter, and I’m wondering what your immediate reaction is.”
This could be the most important step in communicating effectively through a difficult topic – such as correcting behavior, denying a promotion or announcing bad business news.
You want to let people know you’re OK with their negative feelings and the reasons for them.
Stress that they shouldn’t feel any shame over what they’ve done or embarrassment about a negative reaction to bad news. That allows both of you to set course for problem solving.
Respond to their emotions with phrases like these:
- “I see why you’d be frustrated.”
- “I understand the troubles you face with …”
- “You have every right to be upset.”
- “Yours is a natural response to this kind of situation.”
4. Discuss the situation
Now’s your time to share everything you know and your take on it. The key is to remain neutral without minimizing or dramatizing the situation.
Share the facts. Examples:
- “You were late four times last week.”
- “I promoted another employee.”
- “We lost a major account. Profits dropped and we must lay off 10% of the workforce.”
Then explain how the facts affect others:
- “Your co-workers pick up the slack, and the extra work hurts morale.”
- “I’m pleased with your work, but it’s not at the level we need to fulfill the position effectively.”
- “Some of you will be impacted directly by the layoffs. Everyone will have to do adapt to the new situation.”
Finally, invite them to be part of a solution:
- “What can we do to improve this?”
- “What can we do to help you grow in your career?”
- “What can we do to ease the transition and work together to get through the changes?”
5. Incentivize the solution
When people see a benefit in changing, rather than the consequences for a failure, they’re more likely to succeed.
Offer some kind of incentive to make changes or overcome obstacles.
- “If you can get a handle on arriving on time, you’ll have more control to pick your shifts.”
- “If you offer to lead more projects, you’ll show tremendous leadership potential.”
- “If we adjust to the new environment and adapt to changes that will inevitably come, we should get back to normal operations within 18 months.”
6. Disengage from the discussion
Let it go on a positive note – perhaps about your confidence in the person or group to succeed: “I’m confident you’ll be able to reach the new goals we’ve established” or “I know you’re up to this challenge.”
This reaffirms the good working relationship you had going into the conversation.
Remember: Now’s not the time to rehash points. Leave it at a point where the only step for everyone involved is forward.
Difficult messages don’t have to muddle relationships. They aren’t as easy to deliver as good news, but if tough messages are managed and delivered well, they can help you and employees overcome the issues successfully.