Yesterday, the chancellor faced the country and delivered a stark budget, littered with cutbacks and disappointing predictions of recovery and growth.  For some the news was good – for many it won’t feel that way. Delivering bad news, difficult news or unpopular news is part of the remit of every leader but is there a way to make bad news…better?

The Pilot: the calm in the storm

I’ve talked before about the five roles of being a leader who can engage for performance. Of the five, the role of Pilot is one that reflects the style and approach of managers and leaders.  It is a calming, guiding role that reassures the workforce that everything is under control (think of the soothing tone of the captain when the plane you’re on hits turbulence: you know it is going to be OK, however rocky it might feel in that moment). 

Pilots trade in honesty and trust and when the organization is rocked by change, the spotlight on them shines brighter because this is the time for a steady hand and a guiding light.  The Pilot does not necessarily have all of the answers – and that’s ok.  The key is not to avoid the questions in the first place, not to fall silent for fear of saying the wrong thing, not to retreat altogether because the situation feels too uncomfortable or stressful.

 Pilots consistently remain the trusted voice that people can turn to: they will attend to the little things to help smooth the journey along, they’ll listen and they’ll care. They will know who is struggling with the news the most, because they are tuned in to how people are thinking and feeling.  Great Pilots are much less concerned with the slick presentations and props to communicate with their people: you’re more likely to find them talking from the heart, face-to-face.

The Prophet: It will be worth it in the end

Difficult news is inevitable, of course, but what makes it more palatable is believing that the new course of action and the necessary changes will be worth it.  This is where leaders must step up to another critical role in sustaining engagement: the Prophet. 

The Prophet is one who galvanises and pulls together the workforce, aligning them to an achievable and believable mission. Far from sweeping the bad stuff aside, Prophets keep driving the bigger purpose, the bigger picture home, keeping everyone connected to the end goal. It’s during the dark times that Prophets have to be more visible than ever before.

When the boat is rocking and the waves are crashing, the whole organisation will look to their leader to set a vision that makes sense of what is happening and why.  In turn, managers will need to be the Prophet for their own teams, helping individuals to unpick what the vision means for them personally and how it affects them.

Want to be a better Pilot?  Try these tips:

·         Don’t be tempted to communicate less: the tough stuff needs to come out into the open, no matter how difficult the news might be.  Establish an ‘open door’ policy (virtual if needs be) to let people know you are there for them: sometimes all people need to know is that you care enough as a manager to listen, even if you don’t have all the answers.

 ·         Practice delivering and discussing the more difficult elements of the news: if you can, ask someone to check your choice of expressions, tone of voice etc.  Sometimes, just re-phrasing or emphasising different points about what you are saying can help create more impact or establish absolute clarity.


·           The small stuff matters: follow up on the little actions that you said you would: it all adds up to you being seen as consistent and fair.  If you forget or don’t have time: tell them.


  Want to be a more impactful Prophet? Try the following techniques:

·         Try rephrasing your ‘vision’ as a ‘dream’:  dream is a less concrete term and allows you more freedom and creativity to galvanise your team, eg, “The CEO’s vision is going to challenge all of us: my dream is that this team is going to be the first to achieve it by the end of the year.”


We may not be able to control bad news, but we can make better choices about the way we deliver them.  If we are trusted to make the best of a bad situation and that our intentions are in the best interests of our people, trust in us will only grow.  Bad news can have positive outcomes…