Giving Tough Messages in Tough Times

Article by:
Marnie Green, EO Speaker
Marnie Green
EO Speaker

Marnie is the Principal of Management Education Group, Inc., a worldwide training and development firm that specializes in supporting leaders who face tough challenges. She is also the author of Painless Performance Evaluations: A Practical Approach to Managing Day-to-Day Employee Performance. Marnie last spoke for EO at a Global event in 2003. She can be reached at [email protected].

About 20 years ago, I was hired by an organization and quickly put into a gut-wrenching situation. Within three months of my arrival, the company experienced a major period of cutbacks. Jobs were being lost and my position was on the list to be eliminated. Because I was the most junior person in the office, this meant that I was a prime target for layoff.

After a long, three-month process, it was determined that my job was safe. During those three months, I was on pins and needles. But looking back, I am grateful that my boss kept me informed and provided me with options as early as he could so that I could prepare for the potential loss. His honest approach to delivering tough messages during tough times taught me how to be a better business person.

Today, organizations and employees are facing similar cutbacks and turbulence. If they aren’t laying people off, they’re cutting budgets big time. As entrepreneurs, we know that a slumping economy translates into difficult decisions for the workplace, and how these decisions are carried out impact how employees feel about their organization.

While these tough times are forcing business owners to deliver bad news, it doesn’t have to lead to decreased employee motivation or commitment. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned regarding how to effectively communicate with staff during difficult times:

  • Tell them all you know. Hiding details or facts from employees rarely benefits anyone, and employees eventually find out the full truth anyway. If you haven’t been 100 percent upfront with the details from the beginning, your lack of transparency will be held against you in the future.

  • Tell them when you'll know more. Sometimes you don’t know all of the facts or possible outcomes. The best thing you can do is to admit what you don’t know and inform them when you expect to have more information. Of course, you’ll want to deliver on your promise to follow up.

  • Provide options. In uncertain times, entrepreneurs want to know that they have viable options. In the case of layoffs or budget cuts, you may not have a choice when it comes to making tough decisions. However, you can offer options to employees about how the changes will affect them. For example, one struggling organization I know is offering employees a chance to take a lower–paying job or a severance package. At the very least, the choice leaves the employees in control of their own destiny.

  • Show your pain. These are painful times when people are losing the status quo. It is completely appropriate, and often times welcomed, for the person delivering bad news to show that it’s a tough and painful decision. I still remember a former boss of mine who said, "This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make." I believed him.

  • Don't sugercoat or minimize your message. You may want to deliver the bad news in a way that makes it seem "not so bad." You may even sprinkle in a few "look on the bright sides." While a certain amount of optimism may seem appropriate, be careful not to overdo it. What may seem like "no big deal" to you may be a huge deal to the employee who is hearing the bad news for the first time.

Giving tough messages during tough times can be difficult, but I’ve learned that by being honest and forthcoming with your concerns, you’ll set yourself and your staff up for future success.

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