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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 1, 2019


As a leader, it’s likely that you have had to deliver bad news. It can be extremely difficult to do well. This week we look at practical ways to deliver negative news, and hopefully not become the messenger that gets shot in the process.



Hello and welcome to episode 38 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at practical ways to deliver negative news, and hopefully not become the messenger that gets shot in the process.


No doubt you’ve heard the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger”. You might think it’s just another saying, but recent research suggests that is exactly what we do. Through a series of experiments the researchers at Harvard found that people end up not liking those who bear bad news, even when the person wasn’t the decision maker. And the impact is literally on ratings of the messenger - people don’t end up thinking any less of another representative standing next to the messenger while the bad news is shared. The effect of people disliking the messenger is particularly strong when the bad news isn’t expected or doesn’t make complete sense to the person receiving the news. The researchers saw such news as challenging our assumptions that the world is “just, predictable, and comprehensible”. In such circumstances we tend to question the motives of the messenger - what are they really trying to do, and what are they getting out of it?


Once the bad news is delivered, people may be less likely to then want to interact with the messenger, but the messenger is often the very person who is best placed to offer support for next steps.


As a leader, the most difficult news I had to deliver was making people redundant - people I knew well and liked that we had to let go for reasons entirely out of their control. We had about as good a process as we could around that, but the relationships with the individuals were permanently damaged. Just like the research suggested, they naturally thought less of me as the messenger. After all, who wants to keep in touch with the person who made them redundant?


But there are some steps we can take to help avoid being the messenger that gets shot:

  1. Be direct and clear - it can be tempting to try to soften the news, but just end up making it less clear. What are the fewest words you can use to distil the message down to the core.

  2. Let them know the reasons behind the decision or information - be honest about what you do and don’t know.

  3. Let them know how you feel and your motives - you are a human being delivering a message to another human being.

  4. It’s not about you - conveying the message is primarily about them, so don’t make it about you.

  5. Acknowledge the emotions - that the news is likely to impact them, and that’s perfectly understandable.

  6. Check in for understanding - ask them to share the news in their own words and clarify anything that isn’t clear.

  7. Commit to supporting them - let them know that you’re here to help.

  8. Look after yourself - sharing bad news can knock you around, so find others who can support you.

If we follow each of these steps, we’re in a much better position to deliver negative news in a way where people can hear it, process it, and then seek additional support.