Telling employees what they don’t want to hear isn’t pleasant. The anticipatory dread can immobilize you. The message itself may be painful to say. And their reactions can upset you.
By leveling with people, you go a long way toward earning their respect. Even if the news hurts, hold your head up and convey it with poise and empathy.
When John Dean, former chief executive of First Interstate Bank of Oklahoma, needed to lay off nearly 100 employees in 1986, he made every effort to minimize surprises in the months leading up to it. He updated them frequently on the company’s finances and the steps he was taking to right the ship.
“People know when things are bad,” says Dean, who later became chief executive of Silicon Valley Bank. “Word spreads fast when a company is in trouble. Workers become distracted and less productive. It’s the leader’s job to communicate often even if the news is bad.”
When he could no longer avoid layoffs, Dean met with people and explained the rationale for the move and the measures the firm was taking to support them. After listening to Dean’s comments, a woman hugged him and said, “At this bank I’ve been hired, laid off, rehired and now laid off again. But you’re the only one who has been honest with me. Thank you.”
When giving bad news, less is more. If you give rambling preambles rather than cut right to your main point, you sow confusion and distrust. People want to know what you know, pronto.
Speak slowly and let people respond on their terms. If you’re greeted with tears or angry outbursts, remain stoic and listen.