Is there a good way to deliver bad news?

This week saw the start of serious cuts from the UK government and this country is not alone in choosing to act now in order to start cutting deficits, with many other European and global governments planning similar schemes. Likewise the rest of the news carries the heavy weight of shaky markets, conflicts and uncertain speculation.  

This made me think about whether there is a good way to deliver bad news. Dr Robert Buckman suggests from his experience telling people with terminal cancer bad news; “Begin by listening, and end it by summarizing: review the ground you’ve covered, identify a plan, agree on a ‘contract’ for the next contact.”.

Essentially he suggests if you begin by listening then you can work out whether there is a mismatch between the perception and reality of your audience. This may be a good approach in one-to-one situation such as a doctor telling a patient the results of a test or an employer tackling a difficult review meeting, but can massive organisation like a big corporation or government ever listen meaningfully to their huge and varied audience?

Other advice suggests the key to delivering bad news is to keep it short and sweet. As this Guardian blog discusses earlier this year Jonathan Schwatz, the Chief Exec of Sun Microsystems announced his resignation via a Haiku on twitter. It’s almost like taking a plaster off- do it quickly and the pain is shorter.

Kevin Daley on Harvard Business Review commented that “Delivering bad news is one of the biggest challenges managers face”. He suggests there are four key pointers to doing it well:

1)      Do it as soon as possible

2)      Speak Candidly

3)      Give them the big picture

4)      Plan for difficult questions

Considering the big sums the UK government is planning to cut – the reaction from the public (so far) has been quite muted. The perception that MPs have been dishonest with the public recently may mean that actually people welcome bad news if they perceive it as a sign of MPs being honest and transparent. Likewise Christina Bielaskza–DuVernay, highlights that receiving bad news as a business can be a good thing as it allows you to act, adapt and ultimately survive.


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