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The challenge of imparting bad news

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Bad newsJan Hills discusses how most ‘bad news’ training focuses on the reaction of the receiver and that more focus needs to be concentrated on the giver.


One of the key skills of the most successful HR business partners (HRBP) is being able to challenge their client and yet still maintain a good relationship with them. As an HRBP, being able to challenge and get your client to take action is essential.

Yet we all know how difficult it can be to give bad news and keep someone focussed on the positive action required as a result of the news. As human beings we are wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure and so naturally shy away from giving bad news; that is the challenge that the client does not want to hear.

“As human beings we are wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure and so naturally shy away from giving bad news.”

HRBPs need to refocus their efforts on confronting the reality of the situation in order to achieve the best solution for the business.

Recent research in the medical field* shows just how difficult delivering bad news can be. Even doctors who are trained to give some of the most difficult news and who need the patient to take action (often to enable life saving treatment) find it difficult. The research found that 40% of them admitted, during the research, to putting an inaccurate or overly positive gloss on bad news in order to relieve themselves of the burden of dealing with the patient’s reaction.

One wonders what the percentage would be if HR professionals were asked the same question? My guess is the number would be as high if not higher. One of the criticisms levelled at HR is that it does not take risks, and for many HRBPs, challenging the client is seen as a risk.

Focus on the giver of bad news

Training courses about how to deliver bad news often focus on process and look at ways to manage the reaction of the receiver. But given this research, and our experience, perhaps more focus should be placed on the mindset of the giver. In my view, there are four key areas to train people in.

Firstly, people need to be clear about their motives in making the challenge. Training should help you with techniques to get clear in your mind why you are giving the news and that will help you to communicate clearly. Concentrate on the positive intention that is driving the delivery of the news and make sure you communicate the long-term goal that has necessitated the news being delivered or the challenge given.

“If we deliver the news in the right way then we can go a long way to making the process painless.”

Secondly, you need ways to view the results of your bad news in the long term. For example, if we deliver the news in the right way then we can go a long way to making the process painless. Think about it; it might even turn out to be good news in the long run – you might end up helping the person, maybe by stopping them making a mistake or doing something that might damage their reputation. Imagine, for example, giving the bad news to a client that their idea would not work or would damage their career prospects. Would they be more distressed by momentary discomfort as you describe the consequences of their proposed course of action, or relieved that they are helped to find a better solution?

Thirdly, managing your state of mind (state management) is also an important part of delivering challenges effectively. You should always make time to manage your mindset before you go to deliver the bad news. Never go in to the situation with a sinking feeling in your stomach or a desire to just get it over with. Instead be positive and, as detailed above, focus on the long-term benefits that the client will get verses the short-term pain that might be caused by delivering the news.

If you’ve had a bad experience in the past with someone being aggressive or emotional when you have delivered bad news, don’t let it put you in a bad place before you walk into a situation. Instead, deal with it. Replay the scene in your head as if you are sitting in a cinema and watching it. Drain the colour out of it to help remove the emotion from it. This will help you to move on, and not carry past fears or negativity into this new situation.

“Research showed that a willingness to challenge on issues that benefit the client becomes the foundation for deeper and more trusting relationships.”

Finally, once you’ve established that delivering this news is necessary and potentially even good for your client, before you walk into a situation, work out how you can help your client think of that news in a positive light. Think about options for them and have a positive alternative course of action up your sleeve.

While you are delivering the news, monitor the reaction of the receiver. Are they hearing you? Make sure they’ve understood your initial message and help them to decide how they will act on it. If they were originally planning to set off down a course that was potentially career damaging, but they still need to do something, then you can help them to focus on a positive approach or to see that other options are open to them to resolve their issue.

Trusting relationships

Our research showed that a willingness to challenge on issues that benefit the client becomes the foundation for deeper and more trusting relationships. This might sound counter-intuitive, but actually helping people to realise that they are taking a bad course of action results in more trust and better relationships, and these relationships ultimately add value to the client and drive change in the business.

In the end, really understanding your client and being strategic about your role in the business will help you to understand your client’s needs and help you explore alternative outcomes with them.

So remember, everyone has to deliver bad news at some point in their careers; to be successful in delivering bad news and challenging your clients, you should be clear about your goals as the challenger. Always deliver the challenge with your focus on the receiver, not on yourself, and always have clear suggestions prepared about the steps that will achieve the goal more successfully.

*Kate Sweeney, James A Sheppard. Being the best bearer of bad tidings; Review of General Psychology


Jan Hills is from HR With Guts

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