Leading On Bad Days
Read time: 10 minutes
Happy to be back and write again! My last 3 weeks were not the best due to COVID, however, I am now recovered. While dealing with a high fever, and lots of cough and perspiration, I got a stroke of inspiration: to write in my next newsletter about leading on bad days.
Leadership just does not happen only when everything goes smoothly. As an individual contributor, you may lie under the radar for a couple of days or even weeks, until you restore your energy, or get back your motivation.
As a leader, you do not have this space. Leadership is even more critical at times when things become urgent, in crisis, or in those cases when is critical to prevent things from deteriorating. It may not be the leader’s fault for the bad circumstances, but how the leader behaves at the moment, and how he or she treats both people and situations will define the leader’s effectiveness and will make or break their reputation or success.
Think of the following situations, where you are this leader:
- You are in a meeting with peer managers and they seem to share a more relaxed perspective than yours; you need to make yourself heard and bring in a sense of urgency since you have some bad news that will affect the company if nothing is done.
- Your review this year has room for improvement and your director seem to not have time or to avoid discussing directly with you.
- You did not get the promotion or raise you asked for, and feel disappointed and betrayed.
- You are not nominated to manage the promised project. Or, you are taken off from the project you manage and changed with another project manager.
- You receive a major complaint from a client who wants to close the relationship with your company and now escalated this news to the company’s CEO.
- The company is restructuring, and you have the final say in who will be let go from your department or project.
- Your infant kid has a high fever and was rushed to the hospital by your wife (who just told you that), while you are in the middle of contract negotiations with a client who had an 8-hour flight to come and discuss face-to-face this contract.
All of those and more are the types of bad situations leaders need to manage and successfully navigate or examples of bad news leaders deliver. It’s part of the job, and we need to develop our ability to do it.
SPIKES – a 6-step process to deliver bad news
In the medical field, there’s a framework called SPIKES preparing doctors for delivering really bad news.
In delivering bad news, leaders need to navigate fast from:
(1) gathering all data from their employees or stakeholders to
(2) delivering the bad news to the affected or relevant stakeholders,
(3) providing support to the team to come up with a plan in regards to what’s next, and
(4) providing support to the team to execute that plan.
1: S | Setting Up
You need to prepare mentally for delivering bad news by setting up the environment. It’s difficult to deliver bad news, no one can work a solution until everyone knows what the problem is.
Privacy is an essential part of delivering bad news. If you’re talking with an individual or the whole team, take them into a private area. Even if the news isn’t private, their reactions or the conversations that follow might be.
Get everyone to sit down. It invites relaxation, shows respect, and proves the topic is important and it isn’t going to be rushed.
Keep your phone and laptop off. Distractions are an indication that you’re not present and giving this the attention it deserves.
2: P | Perception
This is a critical step in helping you to gather valuable information about the perception of the person to whom you need to convey the bad news, about the gravity of the situation.
For example, if you are a manager who needs to address some areas of improvement with one of your employees, you will ask the employee:
“How do you think your performance has been on this project so far?”
Or perhaps you are the manager and need to break to your director your concerns about recent serious complaints made by your client about the services delivered to them by your team under your watch, only to hear the client already contacted your director and complained directly. So you would check also with your director:
“What have you been told by the Client?” and “How do you assess our company’s performance so far about deliveries done to this Client”?
By asking these questions, you convey two main messages: firstly, that you listen to the other person’s perspective, secondly that you want to learn from this perspective and complete your understanding of the facts, if necessary.
Once you did that, you have a better understanding of how reality could be perceived differently from the two angles (yours and of the person to whom you need to deliver bad news), and you can work the gap between the two perceptions while delivering the bad news.
“I understand that’s how you see it, but I need to explain a different perspective on your performance.”
“I was told there are some complaints, but our Client sees your project team taking all measures to correct the situation. The Client also added that all project is under time pressure as this one, has such complaints, it’s just part of the job. Nevertheless, they trust our company to be able to correct the situation.”
3: I | Invitation
When delivering bad news, it is important to ask about the level of detail the other person needs to absorb and process the bad news. Having to deliver too many details may be just seen as something too heavy, given the other person may miss significant details to make all logical connections.
Checking with them on what they need shows both respect and interest for the other and helps you serve the data you have in the most meaningful way to the receiver.
“Do you want specific instances of project performance issues?”
“Do you want to read the customer’s full complaint or just the highlights?”
As a leader, you need to pay attention to what emotions does create in others and the number of details you provide. Too many details may be difficult to be received or integrated in short term, and therefore may either make the other feel shamed or bad or may make you look too defensive or even aggressive. Too little will bring suspicions about being targetted for nothing, or as if you have something to hide.
4: K | Knowledge
Providing knowledge and information is part of delivering bad news. Your communication style must change to fit the circumstances. You will need to deliver the bad news understandably for the receiver, using known terminology to them.
Give information in chunks, and avoid being overly blunt.
First chink: “The client stated we misled them about a couple of product’s functionality. Do you want me to go into detail about the specifics of the delivered functionalities and explain to you how these differ from their expectations?”
Second chunk: “The customer also said, you made verbal promises about one functionality that would be coming soon. Do you remember somehow what was all about?”
5: E | Emotions
Even managers like to believe they decide on facts, data, and figures, many times they are acting under the effect of their and others’ emotions.
Even when emotional, people still need to treat one another with respect. At times, if the discussion gets too heated, the best action is sitting with understanding and empathy for the emotional pains of the other person or even of ours, while collaborating for finding a solution (if required).
As a leader, you will be remembered especially for how bad you made other people feel when they felt vulnerable. Showing silent respect while the other person diffuses their emotional heat can be the best supportive approach.
6: S | Strategy
A leader will show he is accountable for the bad results or the bad news happening under their watch, only if, once with the bad news, he also presents an action plan. While bad news makes people feel or perceive there is no actual control, being in control is exactly what you - as the leader - need to show you have.
Showing you are in control has two aspects: the first is related to creating a contingency plan to correct the situation, and the second is about how you deal with managing your own emotional reactions (disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety, fear) while delivering the bad news.
To create that recovery plan you need to work together with your team. When things seem to be in crisis, picking on others for their errors or lack of performance, or finding the guilty is the last thing you want to do. You still depend on your people’s knowledge and creativity to come up with effective solutions and recover the losses. It is on you to ensure they are united, you all have a shared understanding of what happened, and you come up as a team with concrete steps to move ahead.
Moving beyond delivering the bad news is the only way out. As a leader, you are responsible for the clarity of action of your people, for the expectations about the result or the timeline in which the recovery plan needs to happen, for the available options, and for making clear what a good decision looks like in the given context.
You should not forget that you remain part of the team executing the recovery plan. Your participation and full engagement are both expected and looked for. The time of bad news is left behind now. People need to know they can check at any moment openly with you on the foreseen results or on new options available.
When a leader, you need to understand that you set the tone for turning the bad news into business as usual. The others will follow or copy your emotional coping response. If you blame, everyone will start pointing fingers or being afraid. If you check out from the recovery action (even for legitimate reasons of being busy with other priorities), you will see soon nobody remains to execute the recovery plan, or they will execute as individual entities as opposed as a team, just to get rid of it, risking miscommunications between them.
Forgetting about failure starts with the first win on the recovery plan. Quick wins are the best tool for moving on from bad news.
When delivering bad news and managing in its aftermath, you will work by directing the energy of your team towards constructive approaches first, later towards constructive tasks, until the situation is turned around and the whole bad news event is surpassed by everyone (you, your team, the client, your director, other impacted stakeholders).
“Put The Oxygen Mask On Yourself, First ”
Delivering bad news is emotionally draining. Leaders should not under-evaluate how tired they will feel after a “bad news” event. They also need to be aware the other people involved, whether the ones who created the circumstances for the bad news to happen or not, will follow a similar energy depletion phase.
And your energy reserve will get consumed not only by taking decisions, conducting meetings, mediating or facilitating best solutions, building contingency plans, or monitoring on their execution.
You may need to deal with your own feelings of anxious responsibility for the damage or failure your team provoked, regret, guilt or shame for failure, disappointment for letting yourself or others down with the level of your execution as a leader, or even self-doubt about the actual ability of yourself and of your team to recover the situation.
While maintaining a neutral understanding of what went wrong and in which way you contributed to the crisis, is helpful, remaining too much in negative feelings where you judge yourself, others, or circumstances will set you on the accelerated road to burnout. Keeping a healthy perspective about the facts is important, but getting there will be hard when you, the leader, let yourself be highjacked by negative thoughts and triggered by your own negative judgment.
Being the messenger of bad news doesn't make you accountable for how this news is received. Whoever receives them is an adult too, and has all abilities to emotionally protect themselves and to choose resilience over fight or flight.
Not to mention that often leaders are put in the position of relaying bad news they have no control over. It’s important to separate the act of delivering bad news from being the one who is responsible for whatever went wrong or even from self-perceived worth.
Given you are the main actor in the creation and execution of the recovery plan, you need to take care of yourself first, while encouraging the others in your team to do so. What does it mean? You need to take extra health-related measures to yourself while going through delivering “bad news” episodes, you need to be sure you are rested, and hydrated and keep restricted your intake of junk food, coffee, or other stress-increasing products.
After all, you are human, and your needs are legitimate. No one expects you to be the hero, the savior, or the martyr. Nobody expects you to deprive yourself of your own sleep or rest. At least not your directors. They have more years in their management position to know everything inside out and to have learned to protect their mental well-being.
It is just you who need to cut a bit of slack to yourself, accept you are not perfect, accept things can go wrong and this is in no way an indication of your value, your knowledge, or who you are, forgive yourself for being human and having needs and emotions, and make peace with the fact that it is only that much you can achieve irrespective of how much more you would like to do or achieve.
Putting on your oxygen mask yourself is not only a good practice but it is the only way in which you can further take care effectively of your team and all the management plans you are part of.
With the October onboarding complete, I am currently looking for other 3 people interested to join start November/December the 7-week group coaching program, Master Your Resilience, based on Positive Intelligence© and the PQ App. I invite you to be part of this program. You will learn the basis for intercepting your thinking saboteurs, neutralizing their negative impact, and shifting toward a positive outlook on life with clarity and focus.
Reach out to schedule a discovery call and see how you can benefit most from this program. Or to work out your plan to build your resilience.
If you are already convinced, you can enroll at any time in the program here. Once enrolled, I will follow up with you to set the logistics of starting.
If this letter resonates with you, send it to a friend. They deserve the best, too.
Until next time, remain safe and sage!
💥🎉 That’s pretty much all for today 💥🎉
- In management, breaking bad news is something that all managers need to be prepared for. It is not about if they will have to do it, but rather when they will have to do it.
- Managers will have sometimes to break bad news even if they do not agree with them, or they are not the ones that produced them.
- In the medical field, there is SPIKES protocol for delivering bad news, which I broke down and explained in this newsletter
- SPIKES acronym stands for setting-up, perceptions, invitation, knowledge, emotions, and strategy.
- No manager should underestimate how much effort and energy takes to bring about bad news and settle down the system around.
- Therefore, managers will have to take care first about managing their energy, mood, and state of mind, before being able to create an environment in which their employees will do that for themselves.
- Managers need to know how to intercept their Thinking Saboteurs since this helps them recover faster, get faster clarity, and move ahead with clarity and purpose.
- I invite you to the next 7-week Master Your Resilience group coaching program based on Positive Intelligence which will start Novermber&/December. At this moment I am looking for another 3 people (out of 5) eager to learn the principles and start the practice of intercepting and neutralizing their thinking saboteurs and moving them into clear and focused action. Details on the program can be found here.
- For my list of members, I offer a limited bonus until the end of the year of 58% from the price list. Write me back in case you want to be part of my list and join the course, and I will revert asap with the discount link.
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